The hallmark of the Tampa Bay Rays has been the quality of their starting pitching, and it's the primary reason so many spring training predictions have labeled the team a World Series contender in 2012.
The challenge has been whittling the staff from a Pick Six to a Gimme Five.
But that issue was officially resolved as expected Tuesday morning, when manager Joe Maddon named Jeff Niemann as the final piece of the five-man staff, moving previous starter Wade Davis to the bullpen after a monthlong competition for the remaining spot.
Maddon, speaking to the media in advance of the Rays-Red Sox game in Fort Myers, made it clear that the decision was a difficult one, noting that Davis ultimately seemed like a better fit coming in as a reliever.
It was not based on any kind of spring training performance, Maddon said. The point I want to make is this isnt your typical 'other guy in the rotation' kind of a battle, because we have such faith in both of these guys.
Most organizations may go into this moment searching and somebody has to earn the other spot in the rotation, but with these two guys, coming down to the last two, its unusual to have that kind of quality in the decision-making, so that made it even more difficult. We just like the idea of Jeff in the rotation and Wade in the bullpen. The fact that Wade can come out of the bullpen and possibly throw some high-velocity numbers and make an impact there.
Davis (11-10, 4.55 ERA in 2011) has had a bumpy ride this spring, with a 1-2 record and 4.91 ERA, allowing 22 hits in 18.1 innings, seven walks, 13 strikeouts and an opponents batting average of .301.
But he handled the news in stride, telling reporters, "I'm good. ... It's not a demotion. We're still all going for the same thing, to get to World Series as a team. Individualizing yourself and taking it personally would be stupid, and selfish.''
Niemann fared a bit better, with a 1-2 record and 4.05 ERA, yielding 16 hits in 13.1 innings with three walks, 11 strikeouts and a .302 opponents average.
His history as starter, and his habit of getting on extended hot streaks, no doubt factored into the decision. He has a career mark of 38-23 with a 4.16 ERA and finished 2011 11-4 with a 3.52 ERA after an 0-3 start.
Niemanns reaction to the news: Just to have the whole situation resolved, it's more relieving than anything else.
Davis will likely be used in long-relief stints in the role former Rays pitcher Andy Sonnanstine played in the past, often entering games early and taking the load off the other arms in the bullpen. He would also be available for extra-inning duty. Maddon stressed that his role could easily change, too.
Just as J.P. Howell did a couple of years ago, where we stuck him in the bullpen in 08 and all of a sudden he had these three-inning stints and morphed into this pretty good relief pitcher," Maddon said. "I wanted Wade to be aware of that also, that the role can get meatier as it moves along, but at the end of the day we still consider him a starter.
Its just a tough situation and a good decision that we have at the same time, with having these two guys being as good as they are. Believe me its one of the more difficult things I had to do since Ive been here, making this call.
The one unanswered question is the order of the rotation, which was not revealed Tuesday.
However, theres no mystery surrounding the top of the order. Last years ace, James Shields, has already been penciled in as the Opening Day starter.
As a result, Shields wont face the Red Sox on Tuesday in his regularly scheduled slot, since hes set to face Boston April 13. Hell pitch in a minor league game instead.
Most likely, the second spot will go to left-hander David Price. He hurt his neck two weeks ago and has struggled to find his groove so far (12 innings, 13 hits and an ERA of 4.50).
But Price can still be a dominant presence. And hes hoping to rebound from an inconsistent 2011 season in which he finished 12-13 with a 3.49 ERA a setback from his Cy Young finalist season of 2010 when he posted a 19-6 record with a 2.72 ERA.
What Maddon does after that is still unresolved. The third spot in the order was manned last season by Rookie of the Year right-hander Jeremy Hellickson. But its possible that Maddon could choose to pitch heralded rookie lefty Matt Moore in Game Three of the opening series against the Yankees.
Moore was dazzling after his late-season promotion from the minors last year, and he beat the Yankees in New York in September, allowing four hits in five innings and fanning 11 with one walk.
He was sidelined early in camp with a strained abdominal muscle and has seen limited action on the mound. In four innings, hes allowed two hits, but both went for home runs. Hes struck out five and walked four.
The unflappable Hellickson, of course, was the toast of AL rookies last year with a record of 13-10 and ERA of 2.95. Hes had a rough spring, allowing 20 hits in 10 innings along with a glaring 17 runs allowed (for a 15.30 ERA). Hes also been tagged for five homers.
Finally, the identity of the fifth arm is known, with Niemann rounding out the group. On paper, its a formidable contingent. Now its a matter of the Starting Five shaking off the lingering rust from a spring training thats been difficult for the entire team and living up to its high standards when the games count.