Visa issues hurt Salas in shot at relief spot

By Joe Smith, Times Staff Writer
Published February 24, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - The Rays expect to know more Monday on the status of RHP Juan Salas and INFs Joel Guzman and Willy Aybar, all stuck in the Dominican Republic due to visa issues.

For Salas, his arrival can't come soon enough.

The 29-year-old, coming off an up-and-down rookie season, will have to compete with several others for the last middle reliever spot in the bullpen. While Salas' blue jersey hangs neatly in his untouched locker at the Naimoli complex, players such as RHPs Scott Dohmann and Grant Balfour are getting a head start in the evaluating process.

Manager Joe Maddon said Salas, Aybar and Guzman will be competing for spots, but "Salas is the guy that needs to get out there and pitch."

"The longer Salas is out," Maddon said, "the more difficult it's going to be for him."

Salas made the club last spring and got off to a good start, pitching in 34 games while boasting the fifth-best ERA among AL rookie relievers. But his season was interrupted May 7 when he was suspended for 50 games for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy.

JACKSON GETS NOD: RHP Edwin Jackson will start Friday's exhibition opener against the Reds in Sarasota, but Maddon said that wasn't necessarily an indication that Jackson has a lead in the competition for one of the two open spots in the rotation.

"It's just his turn," Maddon said. "We had to pick somebody."

In what doesn't seem coincidental, LHP Scott Kazmir will pitch the home spring opener March 1 against the Blue Jays and be followed by James Shields, as they claim their expected places at the front of the rotation. Kazmir would be on schedule to pitch the season opener March 31 in Baltimore, but Maddon said he wasn't ready to make any announcements yet, at least not until he talked to the pitchers.

The team will play intrasquad games Tuesday at 11 a.m., with Troy Percival starting for one team and Kazmir for the other, and again Wednesday, with Shields and Matt Garza slated as starters.

KER-PLUNK: For the second straight day, a star was plunked with a pitch during batting practice. On Friday, it was CF B.J. Upton. On Saturday, All-Star Carl Crawford couldn't dodge a pitch by LHP Trever Miller.

"(Crawford) is hard to get; he's so athletic," Miller quipped with a wink.

MISCELLANY: RHP Jason Hammel agreed to a one-year deal, leaving 10 players unsigned in the final days before contracts can be renewed. ... There will be 144 regular-season games televised by FSN Florida (Ch. 39 on the Bright House lineup) and the Rays TV Network (Ch. 66) in the Tampa Bay area. A Jacksonville affiliate was added to the over-the-air network.

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.