Seeking last rotation spot, Odorizzi makes first start
Righty relies heavily on new pitch; Ramos, Bedard, Karns also in mix for job
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Jake Odorizzi doesn't care what you call his new offspeed pitch. He just hopes it helps him get outs. Odorizzi, who's firmly in the competition for Tampa Bay's fifth slot in the rotation, is working on a split-finger pitch this spring that he and Alex Cobb jokingly call "The Thing."
The pitch, which acts like a changeup with late downward break, gave Odorizzi some growing pains Monday, when he struggled with his control against Boston. Odorizzi threw 49 pitches and left with one out in the third inning, but he said it was good to test the pitch under adverse circumstances.
"It was my fault, really," said Odorizzi. "I just kept throwing it, throwing it. I got behind just about everybody because I didn't have a good feel for it. Instead of abandoning and going to something I know -- like my slider -- that I can throw for a strike, I'm going to keep throwing it right now. That's my main emphasis. I'm not going to be too fine with it or [think], 'Well, I can't throw a strike with it at first. I'm going to put it in my pocket and not work on it.' Now is the time I need to work on it."
And work on it he did. Odorizzi threw the pitch over and over, and he said that it was basically a hit-and-miss experience. Most importantly, Odorizzi kept the Red Sox from doing damage in his brief outing, casting another positive step forward in a wide-open battle for the last rotation slot.
Tampa Bay is also considering Cesar Ramos, Erik Bedard and Nate Karns for the fifth rotation spot, and manager Joe Maddon said it's getting tough to get them all opportunities. Ramos pitched in a Minor League game Monday, and Karns will pitch against Toronto on Wednesday.
"We're still looking at everybody," said Maddon of the evaluation process. "We've had such great competition here. You're going to see Jake right now, but they've all thrown the ball well. ... I'm not really performance-based in scouting Spring Training. You're going to have to look under the hood a little bit to try to determine who you think is the most ready for this minute right now."
That last part -- the delving deeper than the actual statistics -- has to be reassuring for Odorizzi, who has raised his difficulty rating by trying to learn a new pitch. The 23-year-old kept going to the same well Monday because he knows that he really needs another weapon.
And so, as the spring progresses, don't expect anything to change. Odorizzi knows exactly what's at stake this spring, but he's more concerned with raising his game for next year and beyond.
"I'm not trying to let that dictate my preparation. I know I need to work on this," he said. "If I get that spot, I've been working on that all spring and it's just a weapon going into the season that I didn't have last year. Maybe some other people wouldn't go through learning a new pitch and jeopardizing that, but I think working on it now and the success I've had is going to take me to the next level."
Hanigan, Molina may evenly split playing time
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Leave it to the Rays to assemble one of the league's most interesting time-sharing arrangements. Usually, when teams look to divide playing time behind the plate, they get two players with complementary skills: an offensive catcher and a defensive replacement.
Tampa Bay, however, has elected to go with two players with largely the same skill set. Both Ryan Hanigan and Jose Molina are regarded as plus defensive catchers with offensive question marks. Hanigan, with a career .359 on-base percentage, may have a higher upside at the plate.
But if you ask manager Joe Maddon, he's not sure how he'll balance his two backstops. Molina and Hanigan don't have to be platooned, but they'll probably play a near-even split.
"I have not even thought about that," said Maddon about playing Molina and Hanigan. "The thing is, they're both so good defensively. It's not like you have to worry that one catcher is not able to handle a certain pitcher. They all can handle each guy out there. That may present itself differently in regards to just being focused more on offense, and then to not play either of them too many days in a row. It could be 51 percent; It could be more than that, but we're just going to let that play and not try to get too smart about it. More than likely, you'll see Hanigan more than J-Mo, but I'm not sure yet."
Hanigan, before this season, had spent his entire career in the National League, and he's coming off an injury-plagued season that saw him bat .198 in 260 plate appearances. Before that season, Hanigan had turned in four straight seasons with an on-base percentage greater than .350.
Hanigan has mostly batted out of the No. 8 hole, and he is one of very few Major League players with a higher career on-base percentage (.359) than his slugging mark (.343). Now, he has to take his walk-heavy ways to the American League and hope that his skills will translate.
It's hard enough to learn a new pitching staff, let alone an entire league. But Hanigan said that he's been around long enough that his performance shouldn't be hampered by the learning curve.
"I know a lot of these guys. I watch the games either way," he said. "I'll just do a little extra scouting. It's more about learning our staff and getting in a groove with our guys than it is about anybody else. You've just got to do your homework and be prepared. Learn as much as you can in Spring Training and try to get some knowledge of what these guys are doing and take it into the season."
And as far as when he'll play? Hanigan said he leaves that to the manager.
"I'll be ready to play when they call my name," said Hanigan. "As many games as that is."
Maddon challenges Myers to win Gold Glove
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Outfielder Wil Myers is in the business of producing runs, but the Rays would like to see him increase his skill in preventing them. Manager Joe Maddon said Monday that he has challenged Myers, the reigning American League Rookie of the Year, to try to win a Gold Glove this season.
Myers, who batted .293 with 13 home runs for the Rays in 2013, was best known defensively for a gaffe on a fly ball against Boston in last year's AL Divisional Series, but Maddon said that was an isolated incident. This spring, when he's been watching Myers, Maddon has seen a potential plus defender.
"I don't think it's as much of a reach," he said. "As a coach, you go out there and you work with the guys and you're watching specific things. You're watching his feet and you're watching how quick he can be, how much ground he can cover. Then you watch his throwing and how the ball comes out of his hand. He has the potential. It's definitely in there. Now it's a matter of application. And then it comes down to the player believing it and the player wanting it. It's definitey within his ability to do that."
Myers, who began his professional career as a catcher in Kansas City's organization, has proven athletic and versatile enough to move around the diamond. He played third base briefly in Triple-A for the Royals, and he was also used in center field and in both outfield corners.
Last year, Myers spent most of his time in right field and at designated hitter, but the Rays also allowed him to start six games in center. Maddon doesn't just want Myers to defend well enough to get his bat in the game; he wants him to be hungry enough to be one of the game's best defenders.
And when he told the former third-round draftee that, he got exactly the reaction he wanted.
"He gave me the Ricky Bobby smile. [He said], 'I can do that,'" said Maddon. "He can do that. He's a really good athlete. He's got great instincts for the game. He runs well. His arm is throwing a lot better this year than I saw last year. There's no reason why a guy like that can pride himself and does not have an opportunity to win the Gold Glove. Physically, he's gifted. On defense, too."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.