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Hard choices ahead
Some surprises, both positive and negative, have emerged in the Rays' position battles.
By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 20, 2007
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Elijah Dukes stretches before playing centerfield during the Rays matchup against the Cleveland Indians last week.
Times staff writer Marc Topkin breaks down the roster, which has to be reduced from 41 to 25 by the April 2 opener:
On the team (10): Shawn Camp, Casey Fossum, Scott Kazmir, Edwin Jackson, Ruddy Lugo, Dan Miceli, Al Reyes-x, Jae Seo, James Shields, Brian Stokes
In the running (8): Tim Corcoran, Gary Glover-x, J.P. Howell, Seth McClung, Chad Orvella, Jeff Ridgway, Jae Kuk Ryu (above), Juan Salas
On the outside (2): Scott Dohmann, Jon Switzer
Best guess: Camp, Fossum, Kazmir, Jackson, Lugo, Miceli, Orvella, Reyes, Ryu, Seo, Shields, Stokes
On the team (1): Dioner Navarro
In the running (2): Josh Paul (above), Shawn Riggans
On the outside: (2) Raul Casanova-x, Yamid Haad-x
Best guess: Navarro, Paul
Infielders (6 or 7)
On the team: (4): Akinori Iwamura, Greg Norton, Ty Wigginton, Ben Zobrist
In the running (4): Jorge Cantu, Brendan Harris (above), Carlos Pena-x, B.J. Upton
On the outside (2): Hee-Seop Choi-x, Jorge Velandia-x
Best guess: Cantu, Harris, Iwamura, Norton, Pena, Wigginton, Zobrist
Outfielders (4 or 5)
On the team (4): Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, Elijah Dukes (above) , Delmon Young
In the running (1): Jonny Gomes
On the outside (1): Dustan Mohr-x
Best guess: Baldelli, Crawford, Dukes, Young
ST. PETERSBURG - Their 3-16 record aside, some things have gone well for the Devil Rays this spring.
For instance, they increased the level of competition in their camp with the hope they would have some difficult decisions to make by the end - and it looks as if they will.
They just may not be the kind of moves they had in mind.
A spring marked thus far by better-than-expected starting pitching, surprisingly unproductive offense, relatively few injuries and several disappointing performances could lead to some interesting moves as the Rays reduce their roster from its present 41 to 25 by the April 2 opener.
Several players considered at various times to be key pieces - second baseman Jorge Cantu, outfielder/DH Jonny Gomes, reliever Seth McClung and infielder/outfielder B.J. Upton - could instead be in jeopardy of not making the team, even though it's a team that would celebrate a .500 record.
Additionally, the Rays have the more standard decisions to make over the next 12 days: a couple of positions in the lineup, a fifth starter, two spots in the bullpen and the batting order.
"There are going to be a lot of spirited debates and discussion as we continue to whittle down the numbers," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "We think we're in a pretty good position being that we're going to send down some pretty good players, and we haven't necessarily been in that position in the past."
Here's a look at some of the key things they have done and have left to do:
For now, B.J. Upton is still moving around the field as the Rays continue their thus-far successful experiment of using him as a Chone Figgins-like super utilityman. But if he doesn't start hitting like the Rays expect him to, he could end up back at Triple-A Durham for a fourth year.
Defense has been his problem, but he has worked hard and done well. He has looked somewhat smooth and natural in center and right (though he hasn't been tested much) and impressive enough at second base to spur talk that as he gets more comfortable, he could eventually challenge for the starting job. His only two errors came during one stint at third, and he has looked fine when playing shortstop, where most of his problems had been. The idea of playing him four or five days a week at different positions (3B, SS, CF, RF, DH) seems as if it could work.
But what Upton hasn't done yet is show the Rays he is ready to hit at the major-league level. He has a .216 average (8-for-37, with 10 strikeouts) and isn't consistently taking the aggressive swings the Rays are looking for.
For starters ...
With LHP Casey Fossum's thus-far on-schedule return from September shoulder surgery, the top four spots appear set. Ace LHP Scott Kazmir, though still throwing too many pitches, appears recovered from his shoulder woes and should be set for opening day. Maddon hasn't announced an order, but the way they are lined up now, RHP Jae Seo would pitch the second game in New York, RHP James Shields the third and Fossum the home opener.
The fifth starter's job remains to be decided, though RHP Edwin Jackson, despite a five-walk step back Sunday, appears to be ahead of LHP J.P. Howell, plus RHPs Tim Corcoran and Jae Kuk Ryu (who has intrigued Maddon).
Jackson has shown glimpses of his potential, plus he is out of options, so he is going to be on the team anyway. He is 23 and has the highest upside; and he wasn't particularly effective in a relief role last year. Howell, 23, can be sent to the minors and, having been rushed to the majors by the Royals in 2005, could benefit from a confidence-boosting stint at Durham.
The infield alignment
The left side of the infield appears all right, with Ben Zobrist at short and Akinori Iwamura, who may be adjusting offensively after his 1-for-23 start, at third.
But the right side remains in question. About the only thing that seems for sure is that Ty Wigginton will start at either first or second.
If Jorge Cantu convinces the Rays he can hit enough and play at least adequate defense, then he will retain his job at second and Wigginton will be at first.
But until Cantu does, they are open to other options, including nonroster Carlos Pena (.160 average hasn't helped) at first and Wigginton at second, or Wigginton at first and Upton at second, or a two-step platoon in which Wigginton splits time with Greg Norton at first and with Cantu at second. Cantu could also end up as the DH.
The amorphic bullpen
Friedman has been candid with his concerns, saying repeatedly he was actively seeking upgrades. Despite the troubling spring by McClung (13.50 ERA, .435 opponents average, two strikeouts in 29 plate appearances), the Rays are quietly feeling at least okay, perhaps drifting toward good, about the pen.
Five relievers appear set, though with roles to be determined: Shawn Camp, Ruddy Lugo, Dan Miceli, Al Reyes (who has to be added to the 40-man roster) and Brian Stokes.
That leaves a half-dozen or so legit candidates for the final two spots: Gary Glover (who starts today in a pivotal appearance), McClung, Chad Orvella, Juan Salas, plus whoever of Corcoran, Jackson and Ryu isn't in the rotation. Unless Jeff Ridgway (11.12 ERA) shows sudden improvement, or Friedman makes a trade or waiver pickup, the bullpen will again be without a left-hander.
Of the 13 position player spots, eight are claimed: OFs Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford and Del-mon Young, Iwamura, Zobrist, Wigginton, C Dioner Navarro and reserve 1B/DH Norton.
Reserve OF Elijah Dukes seems likely to have one of the other five, and another will be the backup catcher, more likely Josh Paul than Shawn Riggans.
But there are multiple permutations as they consider the final three spots. The oversimplified decisions appear to be choosing between Upton and Brendan Harris (who has been impressive and is out of options) as the utility infielder or, possibly, keeping both; and, considering offense and defense, picking two from Cantu, OF/DH Jonny Gomes and Pena.
Lining it up
Maddon tweaked the batting order a couple of weeks ago, putting Delmon Young third and moving Carl Crawford up to second behind Rocco Baldelli. But with some concerns and ineffective results (a major-league low .217 spring average, 55 runs, seven home runs), he is considering more changes.
One idea that has been kicking around all spring is to adopt a more old-school, National League-style lineup by moving Ben Zobrist (who can bunt and advance runners) to the No. 2 spot. Another is to drop Young, a rookie, lower (he hit fifth Sunday) to spread out their hitters (as well as reduce expectations) and move Baldelli or Ty Wigginton into the No. 3 spot. Plus, Crawford said earlier this spring he would be open to going back to the leadoff spot. Here is what they had, and what they could consider: