Rays' blueprint for lineup changed suddenly


Published April 3, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Spring training certainly didn't go as planned for the Devil Rays.

Two players signed to be in the starting lineup - second baseman Roberto Alomar and rightfielder Danny Bautista - retired. The plan to move Carl Crawford to centerfield was scrapped. The competition for the bullpen spots turned out to be tougher than that for the rotation.

About the only thing that happened the way the Rays expected was it took them to the very end to sort things out.

At the start of spring training, the Times posed 10 questions that needed to be addressed. Six weeks later, here are the answers:

Quite a bit actually - 15 players who weren't on the 2004 opening day roster. Only three starters are in their same positions as last year's opener: catcher Toby Hall, shortstop Julio Lugo and leftfielder Carl Crawford. Seven players are new to the organization: infielders Alex Gonzalez and Nick Green, pitchers Hideo Nomo and Casey Fossum, outfielder Chris Singleton, designated hitter Josh Phelps and catcher Charles Johnson, who will be signed Monday and likely replace Michael Restovich. Two others are returning ex-Rays: first baseman Travis Lee and outfielder Alex Sanchez.

Where is the hottest competition going to be?

Turns out, it was in the bullpen, where Seth McClung and Lance Carter won the battle for the final two spots and Bobby Seay was let go. The rotation field thinned quickly as Denny Neagle was released, Doug Waechter sent down and Fossum and McClung moved to the bullpen.

Are the Rays counting on Neagle and Nomo both making the team?

No. They were hoping one would, and Nomo did, showing improvement as the spring went on. Neagle hadn't pitched since July 2003, and it showed.

So who is likely to be in the rotation?

Right-hander Dewon Brazelton retained his spot, though no one expected him to be the opening-day starter. Left-hander Mark Hendrickson and right-hander Rob Bell also kept their jobs. Left-hander Scott Kazmir, at 21, will get the chance to develop at the big-league level. Nomo will be the fifth starter.

How will injured centerfielder Rocco Baldelli be replaced?

The plan was to move Crawford, an All-Star last year in leftfield, but he wasn't comfortable. The Rays came up with a better alternative when they signed Sanchez to replace Bautista. The hole Baldelli leaves in the middle of the batting order is much larger to fill.

Where else is there competition?

Despite bringing in 64 players, there wasn't that much. The Rays went to the last week of spring looking for a utility infielder (Green), backup catcher (Johnson) and extra outfielder (Singleton).

Who are some players who could make things interesting this spring?

The past two top draft picks, outfielder Delmon Young and pitcher Jeff Niemann, showed why they were taken so high. Both made good enough impressions and should be back later this season. Left-hander Chris Seddon and reliever Chad Orvella were two other prospects whose performances were noted. Outfielders Joey Gathright and Jonny Gomes didn't get much chance to show what they can do.

Why isn't there much talk about B.J. Upton?

The Rays decided over the winter that Upton wasn't ready defensively to play in the majors, and there wasn't anything he could do to change their mind. The plan is for him to play shortstop every day at Triple A to see if he can stay there or needs to be moved to third. He should get called up late in the season.

How will Gonzalez handle the move from shortstop to third?

Very well, it turns out. He has looked very comfortable and made a half-dozen spectacular diving stops. A bigger question might be his offense. He finished the spring hitting .206. Given all the trade rumors, will Aubrey Huff be here at the end of the spring?

He is, though the rumors will continue all season. The Cubs and Braves could use his bat and have advanced prospects to give, which is what the Rays will find appealing. Expect some talk about closer Danys Baez, too.