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10 questions about the Tampa Bay Rays heading into spring training

As the Rays assemble in Port Charlotte for Wednesday's first workout of the spring, there are going to be plenty of questions.

For openers, What's your name?

Of the 61 players on the roster as of Sunday, 24 — a staggering 40 percent — are new to the organization.

And while some of the newcomers, such as Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, will need no introduction, many others will. Add in eight minor-league prospects and more than half of the players — 32 — will be making their first appearance in the Rays' major-league camp.

Of the 25 players on the roster for the final game of the playoffs, only 14 will be in camp, and just 12 from the first game of the regular season.

With seven of their top eight relievers, their No. 2 starter and three of their everyday position players (all All-Stars) gone, the Rays have a lot to find out about over the next seven weeks.

Here are 10 questions that need to be answered as camp opens this week:

How is manager Joe Maddon going to fill out the batting order?

In pencil would be wise. Going into camp, little is set as Maddon has to sort out the order based on who is playing since there could be at least partial platoons at five of the nine spots. And of the four "everyday" players — LF Johnny Damon, 3B Evan Longoria, DH Manny Ramirez and CF B.J. Upton — both Damon and Ramirez are likely to get regular days off. What seems fairly certain is that Damon will hit either first or second (depending on whether Maddon goes back to using C John Jaso at the top) and the middle, in some order, will be Longoria, Ramirez and Matt Joyce when he's in rightfield.

So, really, who is going to be in the bullpen?

With four spots claimed by Kyle Farnsworth (who, for now, appears to be the closer by default), Joel Peralta, Adam Russell and lone returnee Andy Sonnanstine, there will be a wide-open battle for the other three jobs. Technically, there are more than a dozen candidates. Realistically, there are probably six or seven with a shot. The Rays would like — but won't require — at least one to be a lefty, with prospect Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos, who was acquired from the Padres, the top options. Of the right-handers, non-roster candidates Juan Cruz and Cory Wade — if healthy — offer the benefit of experience, as does new addition Chris Bootcheck. Dane De La Rosa and Brandon Gomes are intriguing prospects, and Dirk Hayhurst — of The Bullpen Gospels and Garfoose fame — is just plain interesting. And it's probably better than 50-50 that at least one reliever is acquired during the spring.

What will be the best battle for a position?

Aside from bullpen, the Rays are pretty set in their plans with just the percentage of playing time to be sorted out at some positions, such as which of their lefty hitters, including Joyce, Damon, 1B Dan Johnson and new SS Reid Brignac, play against left-handed pitchers. But there could be a real battle at first base. Johnson could be challenged if Casey Kotchman, the former Seminole High star and former Angel (when Maddon was a coach there), is as impressive in camp as he apparently has been in offseason workouts. Kotchman is a tremendous defensive player, so the issue is his hitting.

Who is likely to have the most impressive spring?

Usually it's an unheralded prospect (De La Rosa, a hard-throwing 28-year-old, is a good one) or a veteran trying to get back to the bigs (such as Cruz or INF Felipe Lopez). But keep an eye on veteran starter James Shields, who looks to be in tremendous shape after extensive offseason workouts and seems determined to make amends — and eliminate questions — after a disappointing 13-15, 5.18 season.

What could go wrong?

Injury is always the biggest concern, and that's magnified this year as the Rays sacrificed some key depth in trading SS Jason Bartlett and Garza and not re-signing any of their late-inning relievers. The one change that hasn't gotten a lot of attention is the handing of the shortstop job to Brignac, who has started only 61 big-league games there. The Rays would probably feel better if he had a good spring.

What's J.P. Howell going to look like?

First of all, stronger, as he put on close to 30 pounds of muscle. Howell, who missed all of last season due to shoulder surgery, says he feels great, is throwing with no issues, expects to be pitching in spring games and could be back as soon as late April. The Rays will wait to see how he responds for at least a few weeks before setting a timetable.

How will the bench look?

That's not exactly clear. With 12 pitchers, two catchers (Jaso, Kelly Shoppach) and nine position players (Brignac, Damon, Longoria, Johnson, Joyce, Ramirez, Rodriguez, Upton, Zobrist) set, that leaves two spots. One is likely to be a utility infielder, with Elliot Johnson hoping to hold off Lopez, and the other a reserve outfielder, with Sam Fuld, who was acquired from the Cubs, the leading candidate though Justin Ruggiano, who was dropped from the 40-man roster, could also challenge. But the versatility of so many players allows for some flexibility, and Kotchman could definitely force a change in plans.

Where will Desmond Jennings, whom people talk about as the next Carl Crawford, play?

Most likely at Triple-A Durham. The Rays didn't seem convinced Jennings was ready to take over, and the signing of Damon pretty much made it official he's headed back down. Barring injury, Jennings' only chance to make the opening day roster seemingly would be to dislodge Joyce and win the rightfield job.

How will Matt Garza be replaced in the rotation?

That's an easy one. Barring injury, incident or a just horrendous spring performance (and maybe even then), rookie RHP Jeremy Hellickson, so impressive in last season's cameo, will move right in.

After all the changes, does super-utility player Ben Zobrist have a set position?

No, and yes, yes, yes, yes. Zobrist appears headed back to the super-utility role that best maximizes his tremendous versatility as a switch-hitter who can play anywhere on the field. Last year, he got most of his time in rightfield (80 starts) and second base (45). But with plans to give Joyce and 2B Sean Rodriguez more regular playing time, Zobrist — the third highest-paid player at $4.5 million — is more likely to be moved around, primarily between those two spots, first base (against most left-handers) and leftfield. He figures to play against all left-handers since the Rays are a bit short on right-handed bats.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com

Workout details

When: Pitchers and catchers beginning Wednesday, full squad starting Feb. 21. Workouts start around 9:30 a.m. (10 a.m. on Wednesday) and last 2½-3 hours. Admission and parking free,

Where: Charlotte Sports Park, 2300 El Jobean Road, Port Charlotte.

How to get there: 1-75 South to Toledo Blade Road, go west 6½ miles to El Jobean Road (SR 776), go right 2 miles, stadium on left. Driving time from Tampa Bay area 1½-2 hours.

For more information: (941) 235-5025

10 questions about the Tampa Bay Rays heading into spring training 02/13/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 14, 2011 12:50pm]

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