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Rays prizing continuity
Few offseason moves could translate to more stability.
By MARC TOPKIN
Published January 17, 2007
The Devil Rays, who start spring training a month from now, won't look much different from the group that finished a 61-101 season 3 1/2 months ago. But team officials say the lack of activity was part of their plan to be better in the next few seasons. "One of the most important things with a young team with as much talent as ours is that it's important to let them continue to develop and allow us to continue to identify the core players," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "What we were not going to do was make a move for the sake of doing something and blocking some of our young players when this is a critical time in our development process to answer questions about them."
The rotation will start with Scott Kazmir as long as he is healthy. Each of the other spots requires some type of leap of faith - that James Shields avoids a sophomore slump, that Jae Seo learns how to win, that Casey Fossum recovers in time from shoulder surgery, that a fifth starter emerges from the group of Jason Hammel, J.P. Howell, Edwin Jackson (who is out of options) and Brian Stokes.
The bullpen is more unsettled. Seth McClung (who will have to prove he deserves the closer's job), Dan Miceli and Shawn Camp appear set, but competition for the other four spots is wide open, including Tim Corcoran, Ruddy Lugo, Chad Orvella, minor-league signee Al Reyes, Juan Salas and Stokes, plus lefties Jeff Ridgway and Jon Switzer.
2B Jorge Cantu, broken left foot, other minor injuries: all healed and said to be in excellent shape after working extremely hard throughout the winter.
OF Elijah Dukes, left knee surgery: rehab has gone well, says knee feels better than it has in years.
LHP Casey Fossum, left shoulder surgery: throwing and on schedule to pitch during exhibition season, expects to be ready for opening of regular season.
OF/DH Jonny Gomes, right shoulder surgery: already hitting, will be limited in throwing early in camp, expects to be in outfield early in exhibition season.
LHP Scott Kazmir, left shoulder discomfort: resumed throwing after missing final six weeks of last season and says he is 100 percent with no concerns.
RHP Shinji Mori, right labrum tear: continuing nonsurgical rehab in Japan, unlikely to be ready for spring training.
Outfield could be set for years with Carl Crawford in left, Rocco Baldelli center and Delmon Young right, and the starting spot behind the plate belongs to Dioner Navarro. But with an infield so unsettled that shortstop Ben Zobrist is the closest thing to a sure thing, it's hard to project a starting lineup. There are three options at third (Akinori Iwamura, B.J. Upton, Ty Wigginton) and at second (Jorge Cantu, Iwamura, Wigginton) and the possibility of a multiplayer rotation at first. But if you had to fill it out today for the April 2 opener at Yankee Stadium, it could look like this:
1. Rocco Baldelli, cf
2. Delmon Young, rf
3. Carl Crawford, lf
4. Ty Wigginton, 1b
5. Greg Norton, DH
6. Jorge Cantu, 2b
7. Akinori Iwamura, 3b
8. Dioner Navarro, c
9. Ben Zobrist, ss
SP Scott Kazmir
OF Elijah Dukes
OF Jonny Gomes
C Josh Paul (or Shawn Riggans)
INF B.J. Upton (or Brendan Harris)
Manager Joe Maddon admits to some concern about the lack of depth in the rotation and bullpen but said he "feels pretty good" about the group of position players and is okay with the minimal changes.
"I'm not really upset, concerned, disappointed or any of that," Maddon said. "It's more important we get everybody on the proverbial same page. I like what we're doing."
Though major moves are unlikely over the next month, the Rays are looking to improve the bullpen through small deals.
"We'll continue to have dialogue with other teams from now through spring training," Friedman said. "There are still some areas we'd like to improve in '07. We feel like some of those can be addressed internally. If it looks like we can't, then we'll focus even more so on acquiring those type players."
Here's how things look with the Feb. 17 opening of camp a month away:
Yes, the Rays still are deep in talented young outfielders and still have a need for pitching. Yes, there are several teams such as the Marlins, Braves and Dodgers that they still appear to match up well with. But - all the creative message board suggestions aside - reality is that the Rays would want so much in return for CF Rocco Baldelli (like two young starters) that a trade before the start of spring training is very unlikely. At this point, most teams want to get into camp and assess what they have before making a major move. As they see, and as holes emerge and injuries occur throughout March, the chances for that type of deal increase. Lesser deals are more likely now, but - unless, for example, they can get a young closer - they are more likely to wait for potential trade chips such as 2B Jorge Cantu and INF B.J. Upton to get on the field and potentially increase their value.
2. Not-so-free agents
At least the Rays have been consistent: They didn't pay inflated prices for free agents during the prime signing season in November and December, and they're not going to do so now given what's left on the market. They have some interest in former Royals reliever Scott Dohmann and discussed minor-league (read: no risk) contracts with a few others, such as former Ray Victor Zambrano. They could make a few bargain-basement signings as unsigned players - most likely pitchers - get nervous the closer it gets to the opening of camp (they signed Ty Wigginton around this time last year).
3. The F-word
Friedman and Maddon are always talking about the importance of roster flexibility. At some point, they have to decide who plays where. For the next month, that means lots of doodling. Do they leave Akinori Iwamura, who won five Gold Gloves in Japan, at third base, or move him to second, where some think he is a better fit in the majors? Does Wigginton become the primary first baseman, or does he compete at second and/or third? Do they take a look at moving Jorge Cantu from second to first? Or to DH? Should they consider B.J. Upton in a super-utility role, where he could split time between third, shortstop, outfield and DH? If so, can they get by without a true backup middle infielder? Is Brian Stokes of more value as a fifth starter or a late-inning reliever?