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Questions at top, bottom of rotation

The Devil Rays opened their 10th spring training Saturday with chilly temperatures and a sunny forecast.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published February 18, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - The Devil Rays opened their 10th spring training Saturday with chilly temperatures and a sunny forecast.

Manager Joe Maddon maintained his indefatigable spirit and endless optimism through 101 losses last year, so on the first day of his second season, he naturally saw a bright future.

Maddon is as pleased with the way players are doing things - attending offseason workouts, staying in shape, developing a plan for improvement - as what they are doing.

"I just have a really good feeling about this group right now," he said. "They're into it and getting the message."

Whether - and how quickly -that translates to wins and losses remains to be seen. But team officials are confident that despite making minimal changes and reducing the payroll to $24-million they will have a better year.

As they use the next six weeks to prepare, here are nine key things to watch:

1. Scott Kazmir's left shoulder

The 23-year-old ace insists there is absolutely, positively nothing wrong with his left shoulder, that last season's discomfort that sidelined him in the second half was no more than a minor inconvenience, that he feels stronger than ever after a winter of throwing. But, until he cuts loose in a game situation, then wakes up the next morning with no problem, there is going to be concern and apprehension.

2. The No. 5 spot in the rotation

Joe Maddon has ceded the top four spots in the rotation to Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Jae Seo and Casey Fossum who seems to be making a strong return from left shoulder surgery. That leaves RHPs Jason Hammel, Edwin Jackson, Jae Kuk Ryu and Brian Stokes, and LHP J.P. Howell competing for the fifth spot. It may appear to be a wide-open battle, but here's a hint - Jackson is out of options, which means if he doesn't make the team, the Rays have to risk losing him on waivers.

3. Jorge Cantu's left foot

Cantu's season started to crumble when he broke a bone in his left foot in April. He struggled, spent six weeks on the disabled list, and was never right. After working extremely hard all winter, he has to prove he can again be the player who hit .286 with 28 homers, 117 RBIs and played decent defense in 2005. If he is more like the one who hit .249 with 14 homers, 62 RBIs and seemed a step slow in the field in 2006, he could be headed to DH duty or another team.

4. Who's on first - and second and third

The Rays don't know who will play first base, and might not until they decide who's on second and third. (Amazingly enough, the only thing in the infield that is set is Ben Zobrist at shortstop.) To start, it seems Ty Wigginton and Greg Norton are going to share time at first (and probably at DH), with nonroster invitee Carlos Pena having the best chance to change those plans. But that's assuming that Japanese infielder Akinori Iwamura establishes himself at third base and Cantu keeps his job at second. If either fails, Wigginton could be on the move. Or B.J. Upton - slated for a super-utility role - could re-emerge as a starter.

5. Seth McClung's consistency and maturity

The company line is McClung will have to win the closer's job. But more likely all he has to do is not lose it with a horrible spring. For all the things McClung, 26, didn't do well after moving to the bullpen (three walkoff losses, 43 baserunners in 221/3 innings, a 4.43 ERA), he flashed potentially dominant stuff and converted six of seven save opportunities. What he has to do now is convince the Rays they can trust him to get it done.

6. The rumor mill

The Rays spent a lot of time over the winter talking about big deals without making one. With at least one young, talented, athletic, high-ceiling position player to spare (whether it's Rocco Baldelli, Elijah Dukes or B.J. Upton) and a need for quality relief help or a frontline starter, those talks likely will be rekindled by mid March.

7. Akinori Iwamura's game

Unlike some predecessors from Japan, Akinori Iwamura is colorful, flamboyant and a bit cocky, which Rays officials so far seem to like. But what they don't know is how he will play in the majors. His defense, worthy of six Gold Gloves, should translate. His power, averaging 35 homers and 94 RBI the last three seasons, probably won't. The biggest concern may be his strikeouts - 447 in his last 427 games.

8. Jim Hickey's introductions

Hickey is the Rays' fifth pitching coach in six seasons, and since each has his own way of doing things, it has to be at least a bit confusing. Hickey, who was last with the more veteran Astros, will spend a few days watching before doing any coaching. How he hits it off with the young pitchers such as Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Seth McClung could be huge.

9. Elijah Dukes' temperament

The Rays are going to give the troubled Tampa product every chance to prove he can handle the physical, emotional and social challenges of being on the team as a backup outfielder. Dukes has had temper issues and personality clashes almost everywhere he has been, and the Rays are taking a risk that he won't divide, or blow up, the clubhouse. And that's before he faces the pressure of games that count.