PORT CHARLOTTE — With the season opener — finally — just a week from today, there are things we know for sure about the Rays.
Chris Archer is pumped to make his third straight opening day start. Evan Longoria is prepped to anchor the lineup from his familiar No. 3 slot. Kevin Kiermaier has lots — like $53.5 million worth — of reasons to be happy to be back in centerfield. Reliever Brad Boxberger (lat) and shortstop Matt Duffy (left heel surgery recovery) not being able to join them are unexpected problems.
And there are things we just don't know, such as whether Tim Beckham will take advantage of his long-awaited shot at regular playing time, how Tommy John-rehabbed Alex Cobb and second-year lefty Blake Snell are going to pitch, if improvements shown at the end of last season by Corey Dickerson and Steven Souza Jr. under new hitting coach Chad Mottola carry over, and when Boxberger, Duffy and catcher Wilson Ramos (knee surgery) will be ready to play at a high level.
And in between are 10 things we think we know:
1 The Rays are looking to add another right-handed bat, possibly a shortstop (with Beckham going back to the planned utility role before Duffy's setback) but most likely an outfielder, even better if he can back up in center and has options. Finding one to check all boxes will be hard, so expect to hear lots of names, from Bryce Brentz, Peter Bourjos, Austin Jackson, Rob Refsnyder and Justin Ruggiano to even ex-mate B.J. Upton if dumped by Toronto. If they get one, that could force the decision for a utility infield spot between out-of-options Nick Franklin and promising prospect Daniel Robertson. If they don't, Michael McKenry could be in the mix as the extra bat.
2 Derek Norris will be one of their catchers, his $1.2 million deal finalized Saturday, and Jesus Sucre has gotten strong enough reviews from some pitchers that he looks to be the other, though both have to be added to the 40-man roster. That means not only that the team won't carry either Curt Casali or Luke Maile but will look to trade one — probably Casali — to gain a roster spot.
3 Alex Colome, Xavier Cedeno, Tommy Hunter and Danny Farquhar are set in the bullpen, with Erasmo Ramirez to join them if he's still around. That leaves two (or three) spots to be filled from a group that includes just-claimed and out-of-options Jumbo Diaz, yet-to-impress Shawn Tolleson, Tommy John-rehabbed Chase Whitley and prospects Austin Pruitt (who throws with accuracy) and Jaime Schultz (who throws with velocity). Lefty Justin Marks is another option, but it will be hard to get him onto the roster, too.
4 That bullpen is the biggest area of concern throughout the organization, and with good reason, especially if Boxberger's absence extends into mid May, as it looks. That's even more so if they have to cover a lot of innings early as some of the starters get stretched out. The Triple-A Durham shuttle will be busy.
5 With Colby Rasmus opening on the DL, speedy outfielder Mallex Smith (above) is likely to not only make the opening day roster but be in the lineup April 2 against the Yankees, with a chance to show what he can do and how dynamic a duo he can form with Kiermaier.
6 Dickerson (above) is likely to be the leadoff hitter against right-handers, with manager Kevin Cash shifting philosophy and stacking his lefty hitters, with the top six potentially looking like this when Rasmus returns:
That would leave three righties in some order at the bottom: Souza, Beckham and the catcher.
Against lefties, Beckham is likely to be at the top and Rickie Weeks somewhere in the middle.
7 Brad Miller has looked pretty good in handling the move to second base, at least at exhibition-game speed, which was atop the list of questions going into camp. But there are still going to be some days when the Rays — built on pitching and tidy defense — might be suspect at three infield positions, with Beckham at shortstop, Miller at second and Weeks at first, and behind the plate.
8 The vaunted rotation might turn out to be a bit vulnerable, since after Archer and Jake Odorizzi, there are fair concerns based on spring performances about Cobb, Snell and Matt Andriese. Cobb, heading into his first full season since May 2015 Tommy John surgery, could have the biggest swing, based on whether his confidence in being close to getting locked in on his mechanics bears out. Solid showings this week could assuage some of those concerns.
9 It's going to be a hectic and interesting final week, as the Rays, after adding Norris on Saturday, might be looking to put up to four more on their 40-man roster: Hunter, Sucre, Weeks and the new bat. There are two spots to be had by putting Rule 5 RHP Kevin Gadea and Ramos on the 60-day DL, maybe another one or two from the Diaz/Ramirez/Tolleson shakeout. After that it gets trickier, with Franklin, reliever Ryan Garton and either Casali or Maile potentially in the discussion to be dumped.
10 The first month or so could get ugly in a hurry, with the first 14 games against the Yankees, Blue Jays and Red Sox, and 33 of 43 against those three plus the Astros, Marlins and Indians.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.