ST. PETERSBURG - The Devil Rays' flight to Tokyo leaves Thursday afternoon, but the countdown to takeoff already has started.
The Rays want to have their 25-man roster set, or as close to set as possible, by the time they leave. General manager Chuck LaMar, manager Lou Piniella, front office executives, scouts and coaches are having daily discussions, deliberations and debates and are talking about making their final cuts and decisions by Wednesday.
The Rays have 38 players remaining on the spring roster, but there really are only a handful of actual decisions left. That still doesn't mean it will be easy.
"There is still some deciding to do," Piniella said. "Nothing is totally set. There has been some pretty good competition that has evolved here over the past week or so ... primarily among the pitchers. I think everybody can count."
The Rays are allowed to bring 30 players and don't have to file their official opening-day roster until before the March 30 game against the Yankees.
But they want to know who the final 25 are, or close to it, so they can use the time and two exhibitions against Japanese teams to get their personnel set up for the season and so they don't strand any players by releasing them in Tokyo, limiting their efforts to get a job with a team in the States.
Piniella said the competition has been good, and he expects some of the players the Rays let go will end up with other teams.
But the decisions still have to be made.
"What I think will happen here is that the team will be picked before we go to Japan," Piniella said. "This will be much fairer for the players. Whoever is left out, this gives them a much better chance of catching on. If we can't make a decision in six weeks, I don't think the extra couple days are going to make too much difference, unless I have too much sake."
Here, then, is a look at the remaining decisions:
For all the competition and congestion, there may be only one remaining open spot on what is likely to be a 12-man staff.
But it may take two or three decisions to fill it.
Four slots in the rotation appear set. Victor Zambrano and Jeremi Gonzalez kept their jobs as the top starters, and Piniella said Mark Hendrickson and rookie Doug Waechter are in based on their performance.
That leaves Paul Abbott and Damian Moss leading the battle for the fifth spot. Both are scheduled to pitch today, and Abbott could probably secure the job with a strong outing.
Here's where it gets tricky:
Because the Rays have a light April schedule, they are leaning toward opening the season with only four starters. So though Piniella said Waechter would be in the rotation, the St. Petersburg native could end up being sent to Triple-A Durham to pitch regularly for the first three weeks.
That means Abbott, a 36-year-old right-hander who pitched for Piniella in Seattle, or Moss, a 27-year-old left-hander who signed with Atlanta when LaMar was there, could actually end up in the fourth spot.
And the other likely would end up in what, assuming Waechter is sent down, would be an eight-man bullpen.
Closer Danys Baez, setup man Lance Carter, left-handed specialist Trever Miller and middle relievers Chad Gaudin and Jorge Sosa appear to have jobs in the pen wrapped up.
John Halama was ticketed to be the left-handed long reliever, but the Rays could have another in Moss, who is out of options and can't be sent to the minors without being offered on waivers.
If both are on the team, there is room for only one more reliever, with Todd Jones, Jesus Colome, Travis Harper and Mike Williams the top candidates.
Jones, the 35-year-old former All-Star, might be the most likely choice. The Rays could use an experienced hand in the pen, and he has been pitching better than Williams of late. Plus, Colome and Harper can be sent to the minors, which probably works against them since the Rays could decide, for example, to give Jones a month to show what he can do.
After bringing 28 infielders, outfielders and catchers to camp, the Rays may end up with the same 13 position players they were counting on at the start of spring training.
The starting positions are set except at third base, where Damian Rolls (hitting .462) is making a better case for playing time than Geoff Blum (.238). Both are versatile enough to be a backup at other positions, and some type of platoon still is likely.
Otherwise, the Rays have Julio Lugo at shortstop, Rey Sanchez at second, Tino Martinez at first, Toby Hall behind the plate, Aubrey Huff at DH and an outfield of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Jose Cruz. Robert Fick, Brook Fordyce, Eduardo Perez and either Rolls or Blum will be on the bench.
Unless they have an injury or make a trade (which is possible, maybe probable if they could get starting pitching help), there doesn't seem to be much to decide.
Basically, the only option might be to keep one of the nonroster veteran infielders, Fernando Tatis or Deivi Cruz, instead of a 12th pitcher or Rolls.
Tatis could - and that's could - provide some much-needed power at third and has significant upside if he can return to his 1999 34-homer form. Cruz, a starting shortstop the past seven seasons, could provide quality backup at shortstop and second base. Both have contracts that require a decision by Thursday.
The Rays also have to decide what to do with Fred McGriff. The 40-year-old slugger has been impressive enough this spring to get a job somewhere in the big leagues; the Rays just don't appear to have room.
The better competition might be for playing time once the roster is set.
Fick, who for now can play first, left, right and catcher, has been one of the most impressive players throughout the spring, and Piniella is going to have to be creative to find ways to get him in the lineup.
Here is an analysis of the Rays' remaining roster, how many they want at each position and who may be headed where as they cut from 38 to 25:
ON THE TEAM (9): Paul Abbott, Danys Baez, Lance Carter, Chad Gaudin, Jeremi Gonzalez, Mark Hendrickson, Trever Miller, Jorge Sosa, Victor Zambrano
IN THE MIX (6): Jesus Colome, John Halama, Travis Harper, Todd Jones, Damian Moss, Mike Williams
IN THE MINORS (2): Dewon Brazelton, Doug Waechter
ON THE DL (1): Jason Standridge
IN LIMBO (2): Todd Ritchie, Bobby Seay
ON THE TEAM (2): Brook Fordyce, Toby Hall
IN THE MINORS (2): Edwards Guzman, Pete Laforest
ON THE TEAM (7): Geoff Blum, Robert Fick, Julio Lugo, Tino Martinez, Eduardo Perez, Damian Rolls, Rey Sanchez
IN LIMBO (3): Deivi Cruz, Fred McGriff, Fernando Tatis
ON THE TEAM (4): Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, Jose Cruz, Aubrey Huff