tampabay.com

Rays glad to have too many choices

Battles for the rotation and bullpen may be good signs, with the possibility of dealing from strength.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 15, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - The most precise way to measure improvement at the end of the regular season is to look at the wins and losses. But during the spring, when things are less tangible, the best gauge can be the degree of difficulty in deciding the final roster.

And with less than three weeks left in spring training, the Devil Rays believe the decisions they have to make, especially involving their pitching staff, will be some of their toughest.

"I think our pitching is a little deeper and a little stronger than it has been," manager Lou Piniella said. "There's going to be some difficult decisions that have to be made here in the rotation, and what happens in the rotation will have a little consequence on what happens in the bullpen."

Most of the roster seems set, but there are enough questions about the pitching staff, second base and the backup jobs in the outfield, infield and at catcher to make it interesting.

Plus, Piniella came out Sunday and said he'd like to add a proven left-handed hitter to the lineup. And general manager Chuck LaMar is on record as saying he expects to make at least one trade before the April 4 opener.

"Because we came in with more answers this year than ever before, we'll probably have less movement at the end of the spring," LaMar said. "But I don't think we'll get through the end of camp without at least one trade."

So what still has to be decided?

Starting rotation

Three spots have been claimed by Dewon Brazelton, Mark Hendrickson and rookie Scott Kazmir.

With Denny Neagle acknowledging Monday that he needs to open the season in the minors, there are five pitchers for the final two spots: left-hander Casey Fossum and right-handers Rob Bell, Seth McClung, Hideo Nomo and Doug Waechter.

Nomo has attracted a lot of attention, but the Rays haven't seen enough to know if he will be able to help. Until then, they may be better off proceeding without him and adjusting later (plus, he agreed to a short stint in the minors if necessary). It wouldn't be the worst thing if he makes a late push for a job and they send one of their young pitchers back to the minors.

Otherwise, the Rays would like at least one of the young right-handers, McClung or Waechter, to be in the rotation. Consider them essentially co-favorites for the fourth spot, though both need to be more consistent over the balance of the spring.

If Waechter wins the job, McClung could go to the bullpen, where some in the organization think he could dominate. If McClung wins it, Waechter would go back to Triple A. If neither does, Bell could end up the No.4 starter.

The fifth starter isn't needed until mid April, so the Rays won't be in any hurry to make that decision. It could come down to Bell or Fossum, with the other moving to the bullpen.

Bullpen

The bullpen has been one of the Rays' strengths, and they don't want to make many changes. But their relievers have been attracting most of the trade interest, so a shakeup is possible.

For different reasons, Lance Carter, Trever Miller, Bobby Seay and Jorge Sosa are probably the most likely candidates to be traded. If the right bigger deal came along, the Rays could also consider moving closer Danys Baez.

As it is now, Baez, Miller, Carter, Jesus Colome and Travis Harper seem set. Fossum or Bell would be a good swingman, pitching in middle relief and making spot starts like John Halama did last year.

That leaves Sosa, Seay and Rule 5 draftee Angel Garcia competing for the final spot, with the possibility that McClung and Bell or Fossum could be in the mix.

The bullpen may not be set until the final weekend, especially as the Rays sort out the No.5 spot in the rotation and sift through trade possibilities.

Starting lineup

The Rays thought their starting lineup was set, with Alex Gonzalez's transition from shortstop to third answering their only real question and it appearing to be going well.

But then Jorge Cantu came into camp determined to win the second-base job and Roberto Alomar got off to a slow start, then was sidelined by a sore back.

LaMar said the Rays are looking for another infielder, which could mean they are willing to reconsider and make Cantu the starter. Alomar might have been a good role model, but if Cantu, who emerged last year as the second baseman of the future, is ready, they might as well let him play.

Plus, Piniella got more concerned about their potential lack of offense, especially with the possibility of only three left-handed hitters among the lineup regulars, Carl Crawford, Aubrey Huff and Travis Lee.

They are looking to make a trade for an outfielder/DH type, and the question will be whether they could do better than having Josh Phelps as the full-time DH.

Bench

Going into the spring, the bench seemed set except for the extra outfield spot.

But then Cantu, who was to be the backup infielder, played his way into a potential starting role at second. And Kevin Cash, who was to be the backup catcher, got off to another slow start at the plate (0-for-8). And Tom Goodwin and Chris Singleton, who were probably co-favorites for the backup outfield spot, were both sidelined by minor injuries.

As of now Eduardo Perez seems to be the only sure thing, and, given his $950,000 salary, he could end up as part of a late-spring trade.

If Cantu ends up starting, the Rays will need another utility infielder. They have Shane Halter in camp but might be tempted to seek someone versatile enough to play anywhere in the infield or outfield, like ex-Rays Damian Rolls and Charles Gipson did.

If Cash doesn't show he can hit, the Rays could consider Pete Laforest, a left-hander with some power, or revisit the idea of acquiring veteran Charles Johnson, who will be released by Colorado at the end of the spring.

If the Rays don't make a deal for a hitter, Singleton is probably the front-runner for the final spot because the Rays need at least one left-handed hitter on the bench.

But the idea of needing a backup centerfielder might be overblown because Crawford isn't going to take much time off, and Danny Bautista can fill in if needed. Expect a trade for a left-handed power hitter.