Maddon already shaping '08 club

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 9, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - They've added a closer, a frontline shortstop and a No. 3 starter, but the Rays have more work to do.

In addition to a left-handed hitting outfielder to at least platoon in rightfield, they need a third baseman (for a couple months anyway, as it seems less likely prospect Evan Longoria will be the opening day starter) and a lefty reliever. If they can afford to do more after that, a veteran catcher.

But manager Joe Maddon already is plotting, and here are some things the Rays are thinking:

- Rotation: With Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza set, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine are the incumbents for the remaining spots withJason Hammel, J.P. Howell and Jeff Niemann likely the top competition.

- Rightfield: Jonny Gomes will get a chance for semiregular duty, based on his power potential, hustle and intangibles that Maddon loves. But with his .218 average against right-handers it's likely he'd platoon with the incoming lefty, who could be Andre Ethier, Luke Scott, Cliff Floyd or Geoff Jenkins.

- DH: The Rays are counting heavily on Rocco Baldelli, who has played only 127 games the past three seasons because of injuries. And it may be mid March before they know how much to expect. "Rocco is the key," Maddon said. "Whatever Rocco can do kind of defines everything else that we want to do."

- Third base: If it's decided Longoria "needs" two months of Triple-A seasoning, they'll need someone better than Joel Guzman or Ben Zobrist. A super-utilityman such as Rob Mackowiak makes sense since they want to move Akinori Iwamura to second from the start.

- Batting order: Maddon wants to stick with what worked, starting from the top with lefties Iwamura, Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, then B.J. Upton fourth. C Dioner Navarro and SS Jason Bartlett will be at the bottom, leaving the 5-6-7 spots to be filled by the DH, RF and 3B.

- Bullpen: With Troy Percival the closer, Al Reyes moves up to the eighth inning and Dan Wheeler the seventh, assuming one of those two isn't traded.

- Catcher: Navarro is the starter and Shawn Riggans the backup, but an upgrade would be welcome. They may have interest in a potential frontliner such as Michael Barrett, but until they know if they're getting that left-handed hitting outfielder in trade or via free agency, they're unlikely to commit $3.5-million to $4-million for a catcher.

IF YOU BUILD IT: Two members of the expansion committee that awarded the Rays franchise in 1995 said the planned new stadium would be a big hit.

"I think it's a great idea. Obviously the public doesn't like the current stadium really well," Philadelphia's Bill Giles said.

Boston's John Harrington said: "I'm happy that they'll have a new ballpark. I think that will help. Look at what Fenway does; going to Fenway is an event regardless of the team. ... I think a new ballpark will be a plus for several decades."

GENEROUS SERVINGS: Maddon will be working triple time this week, buying food and cooking and serving "Thanksmas" meals at the Bradenton Salvation Army on Tuesday, St. Petersburg's St. Vincent de Paul Society Wednesday and Tampa's Metropolitan Ministries Thursday.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: With improved pitching and defense, the Rays project to win 12 more games and finish 78-84, David Pinto writes on sportingnews.com, citing stats too complicated to explain here. ... Percival can add $1.5-million in incentives to his $4-million salary in 2008, then up his '09 salary to $5.5-million with similar incentives for a $12.5-million max out. ... The spring schedule is due out this week; it won't include a visit from the Red Sox. ... A reliever of interest may be Katsuhiko Maekawa, a 29-year-old Japanese lefty who is 2-1, 1.82 in the Dominican. ... Top pick LHP David Price wants to be in the majors by the July trip to Cleveland so he can face roommate Jensen Lewis, an Indians reliever. ... Nationals GM Jim Bowden said of Elijah Dukes: "His book hasn't been written yet, just the first two chapters." ... Newsday's sports media blog pegs Andy Freed as the favorite for the Mets' radio job.