Kaz goes forward, Rocco still held back

Ace takes steps toward opening day. Outfielder/DH going nowhere fast.

By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
Published March 7, 2008

CLEARWATER - Scott Kazmir's recovery from a left elbow strain has gone so well, Rays manager Joe Maddon said Thursday that he was now "pretty optimistic" the ace left-hander could make the March 31 opening day start.

But that good news came with a potentially ominous update on Rocco Baldelli, whose playing status is again in question based on how he felt after getting two at-bats Tuesday as the DH, popping out twice.

Though the Rays and Baldelli agreed to a cautious and flexible spring schedule as he seeks to come back after missing most of last season with hamstring problems, any setback would have to be considered concerning.

The Rays first talked about Baldelli playing in the outfield by the end of this week, then pushed that back and said he would remain as the DH, with his next appearance either Thursday or today. But he stayed in St. Petersburg on Thursday spending much of the morning in the trainers' room and while the Rays said they would wait until this morning to decide if he would play today, it didn't sound likely.

"He just wasn't up to speed, and I've just got to make sure with (head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield), this being the vague situation that it is," Maddon said. "I'm just really not sure that he's going to be able to play (today) based on recovery after the last time out."

The communal goal is to get Baldelli, 26, to opening day healthy and able to participate, and executive vice president Andrew Friedman said the Rays will remain patient - for now.

"Our thought process right now is to be overly cautious, so we'll keep monitoring it and seeing how it's going," he said. "We're not going to take any chances this early in spring.

"But as it gets later in spring, obviously we're going to need to get him out there a lot more and get a good sense of what we can expect in April and beyond."

If Baldelli is limited to sharing DH duties with Cliff Floyd, the Rays plan to use Jonny Gomes primarily in rightfield. If Baldelli isn't available at all, they might have to look for outside outfield help, either via trade or remaining free agents such as Kenny Lofton or, perhaps, Barry Bonds.

Kazmir, 24, sidelined since feeling discomfort in his elbow Feb.26, looked so good playing catch over 90 feet Thursday morning that Maddon started mapping out a plan that could have him ready for the opener.

"It was very firm and noninhibited arm action," Maddon said. "He threw really well."

Assuming all remains well, Kazmir (who said he felt "strong") will have two sessions of "long toss" this weekend, throw a bullpen session Monday or Tuesday, pitch in an exhibition game March 14 or 15, then make at least two other spring appearances.

"By doing that we could get him on task, or back on, possibly for the opening day of the season," Maddon said. "We'll be able to build back from the moment we know he can pitch in that game. ...

"From what I saw today I'm pretty optimistic. He looked normal, and he was not holding back, and I think it could be right about that time he's going to be ready to go."

The Rays, though, will be cautious and could decide, even if Kazmir looks good, to push him to the back of the rotation and delay his debut until April 5 or 6.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com