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Rays position battles starting to sort out

Injuries, production are clearing things up, but Hal McRae still has plenty to decide.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 15, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- The questions come breathlessly at times, intrepid reporters asking Hal McRae if a certain player is any closer that day to winning a spot than the day before, or if a specific starting job is closer to being awarded.

McRae will always respond, but he doesn't necessarily say anything. The way he looks at it, spring training is a long evaluation period, and there is no need to make decisions before you have to. Plus he says that given the chance, the players usually will make the decision for you.

"The smartest way to go about it is to put them out there each day," McRae said. "It will all shake out. Things are starting to shake now."

As they head to Bradenton this morning, the Rays have 41 players in camp, meaning 16 have to go by the April 2 regular-season opener. They have 17 exhibition games, and 19 days, with which to work. And they have about a half-dozen jobs to fill.

Here's an updated analysis of the primary battles:

Third base

The Rays will be a better defensive team with Jared Sandberg's glove on the field. The question remains whether they can afford to have his bat in the lineup.

The Rays don't need a lot of offense from Sandberg, but because they'll be fielding a lineup that doesn't have much power at first base and none in leftfield, they'll need some.

With a .250 spring average and two RBIs in six games, Sandberg has yet to show one way or the other if he's ready.

If Sandberg doesn't hit enough to start, he'll likely go to Triple A. Barring a late-spring acquisition (Texas' Mike Lamb could be available), Russ Johnson likely will end up with most of the action, sharing with Bobby Smith (who has been impressive) or Aubrey Huff (who has a lot of convincing to do).

Fifth starter

As long as Wilson Alvarez stays healthy, shows he has the stamina to work deep into games and keeps throwing the ball hard and over the plate, the job will be his.

There are several reasons for this. He is the Rays' most experienced and, in case you forgot during his two-year absence with shoulder problems, most successful pitcher. He wouldn't be of much use in the bullpen because the Rays need to handle him with care. And he makes $8-million and has a no-trade clause, so if he's not on the disabled list he might as well be in the rotation.

If Alvarez falters or isn't quite ready, Ryan Rupe likely is next in line. Rupe struggled last season and has made some progress with slight mechanical adjustments (11 hits, 1 run, 7 strikeouts in eight innings), but he could need more time to work on things.

Until last week, the Rays thought they were looking only for a fifth starter, and at that one who wouldn't get regular work until mid May and might be used in occasional long relief.

But if Nick Bierbrodt doesn't get his control problems worked out, they will need another starter. That could mean Rupe gets a spot anyway, or maybe one for Travis Harper or Jason Dickson.

Outfield

This area seems nearly to have worked itself out. With Greg Vaughn apparently limited mainly to DH duties because of physical problems, the primary alignment looks to be Jason Tyner in left, Randy Winn in center and Ben Grieve in right.

About the only things that could change that are Troy O'Leary and Jason Conti.

Assuming Vaughn is healthy enough to start the season, O'Leary and Conti are battling for the fifth, and probably final, outfield slot. Both have looked good, at times good enough to be considered for a spot in the lineup.

Conti, 27, has excellent speed and defensive instincts and, if he shows enough offense, could at least occasionally replace Winn in center. O'Leary, the former Boston starter, could play left or right, though that means Tyner, whom McRae likes better in leftfield, would move to center.

The Rays could find a way to keep O'Leary and Conti. Otherwise they'll have to decide whether to keep O'Leary, who probably can help them more right now and who might be worth something in a trade, or Conti, who would be of more value in the future and whom they risk losing on waivers because he is out of options.

In some ways, it seems like an easy decision.

Bullpen

McRae plans to start the season with 11 pitchers, figuring the fifth starter can work out of the bullpen on occasion. That leaves six jobs and five fairly automatic candidates: Esteban Yan, Jesus Colome, Victor Zambrano, Travis Phelps and Doug Creek.

If rookie left-hander Steve Kent keeps doing what he has been doing (no hits, no runs in 42/3 innings), there won't be much debate over the final spot, either.

The 23-year-old Kent, a Rule 5 pick from Seattle acquired in a trade through Anaheim, throws hard and throws strikes, and the Rays are inclined to hang on to him based on potential.

If Kent doesn't work out, or if any of the trade rumors involving Creek (Phillies, White Sox, Dodgers) become reality, Bobby Seay and/or Tom Martin would have a shot.

McRae also might be auditioning now for the long reliever he is likely to add once the Rays start playing every day in May. Harper, Rupe, Dickson and Delvin James are possibilities.

Backup infielders

McRae knows what he wants: one guy who is a true shortstop and one who can play first and third. But until the Rays decide who's on third, it's hard to say what he'll get.

If Jason Smith can overcome hamstring problems, get on the field and stay there, he has a good chance for one of the spots because he has some power. If he can't, the job likely will revert to Felix Martinez, who used to be the starter.

Johnson, who has experience in the role and a two-year contract, would seem a lock for the other spot, assuming he isn't the starting third baseman.

But there is some question about his ability to play first, which is important because the Rays may not have a true backup for Steve Cox, unless Huff makes the team.

That's what led the Rays to try Bobby Smith at first, and he has looked good enough there, and has enough other skills, for the experiment to continue.

Under the right composition, the Rays could carry three reserve infielders, especially if one is Bobby Smith because he also can play the outfield.

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