tampabay.com

Who's safe & who's out

As spring winds down, the Rays still face several crucial choices with about a half-dozen roster spots in doubt.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 23, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - They've labored dawn to nearly dusk for five weeks, introducing themselves and their concepts, teaching and talking, watching and wondering. They've sent down prospects, been staggered by injuries and pondered trade possibilities.

Now comes the hard part of spring training.

The season opener is 11 days away, and the Devil Rays have a lot of work to do. Only 19 spots on their 25-man roster appear set, leaving several significant decisions to be made.

Some are related to health, such as whether left-hander Mark Hendrickson will be ready to open the season in the rotation and how often Rocco Baldelli will be able to play in the field.

Some are related to performance, such as whether Aubrey Huff can play third well enough to be the regular there and whether the starting pitchers can consistently work deep into games.

And some are inter-related, such as whether they want to carry an extra centerfielder to fill in regularly for Baldelli more than they might need an additional reliever to cover a potential shortfall in the rotation.

For Joe Maddon, it's another step in the adjustment from bench coach with the contending Angels to manager of the aspiring Rays.

"It's a little bit different because the teams I've been with going into this portion of spring training normally ... you know exactly who's going to be on the team," Maddon said. "This is a little bit different because there are some legitimate fights going on. ... I'm not saying it's horrible, but it's different."

The Rays have until midnight April 1 to set their opening day roster, and they might need every available minute, especially if, as expected, they seek to add a reliever or two through small trades or waiver claims.

Plus, executive vice president Andrew Friedman said, the process won't stop with the start of the season.

"There's been very spirited competition for some of our available roster spots. Certain guys have made this a difficult process," Friedman said. "But we don't put as much emphasis on how we break camp as which 25 guys contribute for the majority of the year."

Here is a look at what they need to figure out over the remaining 10 days of spring training:

How many pitchers is enough?

Maddon prefers to carry 11 pitchers so he can have a fifth position player on the bench. Others in the organization think 12 not only is a better idea but may be a necessity.

For the 11-man configuration to work, a team needs to have starters who consistently pitch into the seventh inning and relievers who can pitch often and well. The Rays don't necessarily have either.

None of the five returning members of the rotation averaged even six full innings a start last season. And several of their relievers are either best used in one-inning stints or limited in pitching back-to-back days, or both.

Who's on third?

It caught the Rays a bit off guard that Huff came into camp asking to move back to third base. But it has been an even bigger surprise that he has played so well.

Maddon said recently he still plans to also use Huff at first and in rightfield. But Huff hasn't played a spring inning anywhere but third, and he has been impressive, showing soft hands, quick feet and an accurate arm and coming out regularly for extra work.

The Rays have to decide if they are confident he can play as well during the season, where the ball moves faster on turf (especially at Tropicana Field), the pace is quicker and the consequences greater.

If so, they may dump Sean Burroughs, who has been unimpressive (a .200 average, no extra-base hits, two RBIs) since being acquired from San Diego for Dewon Brazelton and signed to a $1.5-million guaranteed deal. Burroughs could end up at Triple A as insurance in case Huff falters during the season.

How much Rocco?

Every indication is that Baldelli's comeback from knee and elbow surgery is on track. But he won't make his first appearance in centerfield until Friday night, and a major unknown is how much recovery time - if any - he'll need between outfield appearances, especially early in the season.

If he can play three days in a row, then need a day to rest or DH, the Rays may be able to get by with four outfielders. But if he is going to be restricted to an every-other-day type situation, they may have to carry a fifth outfielder or consider using Huff in right on occasion.

The start of something?

Scott Kazmir (despite a rough spring), Seth McClung and Casey Fossum appear to be set, and Hendrickson will join them if he is close to full strength after being slowed by a leg bruise. (He also could open the season on the disabled list and pitch April 9, when the Rays first need a fifth starter.)

That would appear to leave improved incumbent Doug Waechter and impressive newcomer Edwin Jackson battling for the fifth spot. They could both make it with Waechter used in relief, but the Rays may opt for a conservative path and send Jackson, who had a miserable 2005 in the Dodgers organization, to Triple A to continue rebuilding his confidence.

Can they get any relief?

The Rays went into the spring looking to find a closer. As it turns out, they could use a couple of reliable setup men and a trusty long reliever, too.

Rebuilding the bullpen into a team strength apparently will be a season-long construction process, especially given the season-ending injury to Shinji Mori and a number of unimpressive spring performances. A last-week-of-spring acquisition or two may be a priority.

As it is, only veteran Dan Miceli seems certain to be in the bullpen, though Shawn Camp and Travis Harper are likely to join him. So is Jesus Colome if he can throw more often like he did Tuesday. Chad Orvella may make it, too, despite a troubling spring (six hits, including two homers, and three walks in 6 2/3 innings).

That leaves one or two spots, with Jason Childers, Tim Corcoran, Chad Harville and Justin Miller the top candidates unless the Rays make a deal. Being on the 40-man roster may be an advantage for Corcoran and Harville.

How will they line up?

Until Maddon knows which players are on the team, it's hard to know how he'll use them. Assuming Huff is at third, the infield appears set with Travis Lee at first, Jorge Cantu at second, Julio Lugo at short and Toby Hall behind the plate. Carl Crawford will be in left, Baldelli in center when he can be and Jonny Gomes either in rightfield or at DH, with the other spot possibly going to Joey Gathright pending the final roster configuration.

By this time next week, Maddon hopes to have a regular lineup in place so he can use it for the final exhibitions. He likes speed and left-right balance, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see something like this: Lugo, Crawford, Cantu, Huff, Gomes, Baldelli, Lee, Hall and, if on the team, Gathright.

Who's on the bench?

Backup catcher Josh Paul, infielder Ty Wigginton and outfielder Damon Hollins (who is out of options) appear set. Either Nick Green (who is on the 40-man roster and out of options) and Luis Ordaz (who isn't) is likely to make it as a backup middle infielder.

And this is where it gets really interesting.

With a 12-man pitching staff, there is room for only one more player, which means the Rays could have to pick from among the speedy Gathright, who could be the starting DH or rightfielder, a key reserve, sent to Triple A or traded to the Marlins; Burroughs, whose lack of versatility gives him limited value as a bench player; switch-hitting Greg Norton, who has had an impressive spring and could be a versatile and valuable contributor at first, third, DH and the outfield; and Russell Branyan, who could do similar things with more power and more strikeouts.

TOUGH CALLS 

Times staff writer Marc Topkin projects what might be the toughest decisions the Rays face in setting their roster:

No. 5 starter: Edwin Jackson or Doug Waechter

Backup middle infielder: Nick Green or Luis Ordaz

Extra hitter/DH: Russell Branyan, Joey Gathright or Greg Norton

Long reliever: Tim Corcoran or Justin Miller

Middle reliever: Jason Childers or Chad Harville

ROSTER RAMIFICATIONS

Times staff writer Marc Topkin offers a breakdown of the Rays roster, which has to be cut from 40 to 25 by midnight April 1, and his best guess at the final decisions:

PITCHERS (11 or 12)

ON THE TEAM (7): Shawn Camp, Jesus Colome, Casey Fossum, Travis Harper, Scott Kazmir, Seth McClung, Dan Miceli

ON THE TEAM IF HEALTHY (1): Mark Hendrickson

ON THE CUSP (3): Edwin Jackson, Chad Orvella, Doug Waechter

ON THE FRINGE (4): Jason Childers, Tim Corcoran, Chad Harville, Justin Miller

ON THE OUTSIDE (4): Wayne Franklin, Ruddy Lugo, Mark Malaska, Al Reyes

ON THE DL (1): Shinji Mori

BEST GUESS: (12): Camp, Colome, Fossum, Harper, Harville, Hendrickson, Kazmir, McClung, Miceli, Miller, Orvella, Waechter

CATCHERS (2)

ON THE TEAM (2): Toby Hall, Josh Paul

ON THE OUTSIDE (2): Kevin Cash, Mike Rose

BEST GUESS (2): Hall, Paul

INFIELDERS (6 or 7)

ON THE TEAM (5): Jorge Cantu, Aubrey Huff, Travis Lee, Julio Lugo, Ty Wigginton

ON THE CUSP (2): Nick Green, Luis Ordaz

ON THE FRINGE (3): Russell Branyan, Sean Burroughs, Greg Norton

ON THE OUTSIDE (1): Luis Rivas

BEST GUESS (6): Cantu, Huff, Lee, Lugo, Ordaz, Wigginton

OUTFIELDERS (4 or 5)

ON THE TEAM (4): Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, Jonny Gomes, Damon Hollins

ON THE CUSP (1): Joey Gathright

BEST GUESS (5): Baldelli, Crawford, Gomes, Hollins, Gathright