With 2 weeks until opener, here’s what we think we know about Rays

First base is going to be crowded, the bullpen still has some battles, the batting order will be fluid.
Ji-Man Choi's smooth defense at first base has been one of the highlights of the Rays spring. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Ji-Man Choi's smooth defense at first base has been one of the highlights of the Rays spring. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published March 13

PORT CHARLOTTE — With two weeks until opening a season of grand expectations, the Rays feel, except for the tightness in Matt Duffy’s left hamstring, pretty good about where they are.

“Very happy," manager Kevin Cash said. “We came into spring knowing there wasn’t a ton of decisions to be made. The guys that we’re counting on, I think to a group, they’ve done a good job."

But those couple decisions they do face are not all resolved, and even some that are can beget others.

With the countdown to the March 28 opener vs. the powerful Astros on, here are five things we think we know:

First base is going to be a group effort

Ji-Man Choi’s glove work has been one of the most pleasant surprises of spring, and he looks to be best defensive choice, for now anyway, over fellow lefty swinger Brandon Lowe, who is learning the position on the fly while also playing second and outfield, and Yandy Diaz. Both Choi and Lowe will play against right-handers, with the other likely to DH. But Choi’s showing as a solid defender, if he keeps it up, could also allow the Rays some days against right-handers to put Lowe at second (with Joey Wendle at third) or in rightfield and use the DH spot for a rest day.

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The bullpen still has the biggest battles

Going into camp, the Rays seemed set on seven of the nine spots in their opener-adjusted bullpen, and that’s still the case, with competition ongoing for final two spots.

Jalen Beeks, the lefty acquired from Boston for Nathan Eovaldi, seems like a frontrunner for one. He gives the Rays a third reliever who can work multiple innings after Ryan Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos, whose primary duty is scheduled work behind openers, which could come in handy when one of the three traditional starters, Cy Young award winner Blake Snell, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow, have a bad day. The other lefty candidate, Adam Kolarek, doesn’t provide the same length.

The other spot looks like a battle between righties Hunter Wood and Emilio Pagan to pitch in middle relief or as an opener. Pagan, acquired from Oakland, has had the better spring; Wood has been inconsistent so far but has a track record with the Rays. Non-roster righty Oliver Drake could pitch his way into the conversation. Another option could be Kolarek as a third lefty, joining top reliever Jose Alvarado and Beeks, though an extra righty may help more in the opening stretch as they face the Astros, Rockies, Giants and White Sox, who look to have better right-handed hitters.

The other set bullpenners are Diego Castillo, Chaz Roe, primary opener Ryne Stanek and Wilmer Font, whose out-of-options status probably buys him time given a somewhat unimpressive spring coming off a significant lat strain.

The roster is set, unless it isn’t

Even though Duffy has played only one spring game, Cash remains confident he will be ready for opening day, though he’d likely need to get on the field by Monday, and stay, for that to happen. If so, the 13 position players are set (see box below).

If Duffy ends up opening the season on the injured list (the new name for the disabled list), the Rays could carry an extra reliever (which Cash usually advocates), but more likely could add outfielder Guillermo Heredia, who provides depth and defense at all three spots. Plus, they could use the extra bat for the early NL-rules series in San Francisco. (When Heredia is not on the team, it’s not clear who would be the backup centerfielder between Tommy Pham and Austin Meadows.)

The lineup will look different often

The matchup-driven Rays aren’t built to use a set lineup (for example, 151 last year), and they definitely won’t this year.

That will start at the top, where they are likely to use a series of leadoff hitters. Meadows seems a likely candidate vs. righties, and maybe Lowe, while vs. lefties it could be Diaz or Daniel Robertson.

As for the rest of the order? Pham seems locked in as No. 2 and … and … and … he might be the only hitter with a set spot.

Against righties, look for Meadows, Lowe and Choi in the top four-five spots, Kevin Kiermaier in the lower half and the catcher (Mike Zunino or Michael Perez) near or at the bottom. When the Rays face a lefty, they’ll have seven righties with Avisail Garcia in the No. 3 or 4 spot. Kiermaier will usually be one of the two lefties, and Cash will pick among Choi, Lowe, Meadows, Wendle as the other.

Spring impressions don’t matter, but sometimes they do

The biggest plus-side surprises so far have been Choi’s unexpectedly solid defense, Pagan’s pitching, Garcia’s swings and power based on his surgically repaired knee and Lowe’s .448 average with a team-high 13 RBIs. (Also, for future reference, prospect Nate Lowe’s at-bats, and the rehab work of pitchers Jose De Leon and Brent Honeywell.)

As for disappointments? Diaz, who we’ll point out probably 100 more times, was acquired for Jake Bauers and $5 million, hasn’t impressed at the plate or in the field. Stanek hasn’t been overly sharp, though said he feels close to locked in. Font hasn’t done well. Duffy, who came in stronger and was supposed to get some outfield work, hasn’t done much. Prospect Colin Poche was a longshot to make the team, but looked very much like a guy trying to too hard in his first big-league camp. And Port Charlotte still lacks for good non-chain restaurant options.

For openers

Our best guess at the Rays’ 25-man opening-day roster:

Pitchers: Jose Alvarado, Jalen Beeks, Diego Castillo, Yonny Chirinos, Wilmer Font, Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton, Emilio Pagan, Chaz Roe, Blake Snell, Ryne Stanek, Ryan Yarbrough

Catchers: Michael Perez, Mike Zunino

Infielders: Willy Adames, Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Diaz, Brandon Lowe, Daniel Robertson, Joey Wendle

Outfielders: Avisail Garcia, Guillermo Heredia, Kevin Kiermaier, Austin Meadows, Tommy Pham

Injured list: Matt Duffy, plus Anthony Banda and Jose De Leon

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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