The Rays may not be able to call the race for the No. 5 starting spot until the final week of the exhibition season.
And they couldn't be happier about it.
With only one spot open and five legitimate candidates, the Rays probably will take as much time as they can.
"I'm glad it's not easy and I hope it doesn't get any easier, either," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "I hope that it continues to be a very difficult decision.
"It's a lot more fun to make these difficult decisions than it is to have these things cut and dried unless someone is just head and shoulders above everybody else, but that is not the case."
The most consistent candidate thus far as been right-hander Jeff Niemann, who had a 1.00 ERA through his first three outings.
Also impressive are left-hander Carlos Hernandez, the former Astros starter who hasn't pitched in the majors since 2004, and right-hander Jason Hammel, who spent most of last season in the bullpen.
"I'm just trying to show them that I am supposed to be here and I should be that No. 5 guy," Hammel said. "I'm going to do my best to make sure it's a tough decision."
Said Hernandez: "All I want to do is pitch, and the main thing is to show them that I'm healthy. ... I have to prove that I'm able to get big-league hitters out, and that's what I've been doing so far."
The Rays might trim the field slightly because their starters need more innings. But with Niemann and Hammel out of options, meaning they can't be sent to the minors without being offered on waivers (and almost surely lost), the Rays are going to explore all scenarios.
"Everybody so far that's gone out there has done basically what they're supposed to do," Hickey said. "No one has done anything to take themselves out of the picture."
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