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10 things to watch for during Tampa Bay Rays' spring training

PORT CHARLOTTE

There are some general things Rays officials are looking for during the 32-game exhibition season that begins today that should be obvious.

Good health is especially high on the list given their amassed talent and grand expectations for the season, joined this spring by a renewed call for hard work and high energy.

"How we go about it," manager Joe Maddon said.

There also are some specifics, even if the Rays have only a relatively few decisions to make — sorting out whether Ben Zobrist will play rightfield or second base, or both based on who is playing the other spot; filling out the bench; and settling on the reliever for the last slot in the bullpen.

And that's where it gets interesting, because in making those decisions Rays officials won't be looking at the common indicators — .437 batting average good or 6.97 ERA bad — to make their judgments.

"Definitely not," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "We're not focused on traditional stat lines in spring training to determine who wins and loses jobs. We're very focused on the process, what we've laid out for them to improve on."

Instead, it could be something as esoteric as how a pitcher who previously didn't have confidence in his changeup is throwing it now. Or even how he talks about it. "I'm going to pay attention to a lot of things other than just numbers," Maddon said.

All that said, here are 10 things to look for — and in some cases really look for — over the next 4½ weeks:

1. Davis' command

The No. 5 spot in the rotation is rookie Wade Davis' to lose after an impressive September. He could open the door for Andy Sonnanstine if he doesn't show the fastball command integral to his success.

2. Intensity at the plate

New hitting coach Derek Shelton believes more is good and plans to increase the number of spring at-bats for certain hitters, such as B.J. Upton and Pat Burrell, who are coming off bad years, and Evan Longoria, in hopes they'll be more ready for the start of the season. "The benefits are obvious," Longoria said.

3. Joyce's handiwork

Matt Joyce's bid for the rightfield job is based on the Rays seeing the above-average defense and the improved quality of at-bats against right-handed pitchers he showed last year at Triple-A Durham — .282 average, .879 OPS, walk/strikeout ratio of 56/66.

4. Aisle seat in the pen

In the battle for the final bullpen spot, Sonnanstine, having worked extremely hard coming off his miserable 2009, has to show he can repeatedly keep the ball down, while RHP Joaquin Benoit, having missed all of 2009 following shoulder surgery, has to show he is healthy and durable enough to work back-to-back days. Also in the mix are Dale Thayer and Mike Ekstrom.

5. Catching on

The Rays insist incumbent Dioner Navarro and newcomer Kelly Shoppach aren't competitors but complementary pieces. But both struggled in 2009, and whoever shows better at-bats against right-handed pitchers could earn more starts, at least to start the season.

6. Sean's swings

New infielder Sean Rodriguez, in a three-way, two-position race with Joyce and Reid Brignac, has already impressed with a lot of what he has done, but one thing he has to do less of is strike out as the Rays will be looking for him to make contact in more at-bats.

7. Multi-tasking

The Rays value versatility, and a tiebreaker for a player like Rodriguez could be how well he can play the outfield and, more importantly, shortstop, because the Rays know Brignac can, and it may be a big part of the job.

8. Where's Ben?

At some point, and maybe not until the end, the Rays have to decide whether 2009 team MVP Ben Zobrist is going to play second base, or rightfield, or both.

9. Peña's palm

1B Carlos Peña said he feels good, but the Rays will feel better once he tests the two previously broken fingers on his left hand with regular game-speed at-bats.

10. Order up

Keep an eye on the spring lineups as Maddon — eyeing Zobrist's .405 on-base percentage — is thinking of putting the switch-hitter third in the order, ahead of Longoria.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

10 things to watch for during Tampa Bay Rays' spring training 03/02/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 3, 2010 6:54am]

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