As games begin, Rays focus on roster choices

PORT CHARLOTTE — There's still going to be plenty to talk about, sorting out the batting order and the bullpen roles, the DH rotation, the split of time behind the plate. There will be injuries to update, new pitches and batting stances to assess, young players to watch.

But the Rays open a 30-game exhibition season today with, assuming nothing goes wrong, little of significance to actually decide. The roster is essentially set, except for open spots at the back end of the rotation, bullpen and bench.

"It's really nice," manager Joe Maddon said.

Still, these are the Rays, and they're going to put a lot of thought into whatever decisions have to be made.

"Similar to past years here, I think a lot of the roster spots are spoken for," vice president Andrew Friedman said. "But that said, we have a lot of really interesting players here and a lot of depth. We're going to keep an open mind and figure out what puts us in the best position to not only get out of the gate strong, but put us in the best position to be as strong as we can over a 162-game schedule."

Here's a look at what they'll be looking at over the next four weeks, and a prediction for each:

Fifth starter

The Rays are expecting Jeremy Hellickson back from elbow surgery by late May, so it's basically a temporary opening, with around 10 starts to cover.

Right-hander Jake Odorizzi seemed the favorite going into camp, based on his improved performance during five stints with the Rays last season, with Alex Colome next on the list of internal possibilities.

But two candidates have been added: veteran lefty Erik Bedard, who signed a minor-league deal, and righty prospect Nathan Karns, acquired in a trade from Washington.

Bedard, who will start today's opener against the Orioles, will be an interesting option if he shows he is healthy and the Rays believe he can be effective.

If it comes down to Bedard and Odorizzi, it may be a matter of asset management: keep Bedard and send Odorizzi to Triple-A Durham for protection, or pick Odorizzi and risk losing Bedard to a big-league opportunity elsewhere.

Feb. 28 best guess: Bedard

Bullpen

Assuming no injuries or setbacks to Grant Balfour, Joel Peralta, Heath Bell, Juan Carlos Oviedo (who has yet to report because of visa issues) and lefties Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos, there's one spot open.

The leading candidates offer varying styles, strengths and degrees of experience, though all are right-handed: Brad Boxberger, Brandon Gomes, Josh Lueke and veteran Mark Lowe, who is on a minor-league deal. The ability to work multiple innings would help, as the overall bullpen appears a bit short on length.

Lueke, who was good last year at Durham and not good during four stints with the Rays, appears the frontrunner, as much because he is out of options and likely would be lost if the Rays ran him through waivers. Bedard could be considered if he doesn't get the open rotation spot.

Feb. 28 best guess: Lueke

Bench

With the lineup intact, Matt Joyce leading the DH rotation, and versatile newcomer Logan Forsythe joining play-anywhere Sean Rodriguez as top reserves, there's only one spot to fill.

And, given the Rays' overall flexibility, a bunch of ways to do it that could all make sense: infielder or outfielder, right- or left-handed hitter.

"Similar to years past, we focus a lot on how the 13 position players fit together and how they complement one another," Friedman said. "So we'll continue to have philosophical conversations about the best way to construct our roster to achieve that."

The conventional play is to take a pure outfielder, with right-handed Brandon Guyer, who is also out of options and thus could be lost, the top choice. But he'd be another right-handed hitter and they are already righty-heavy. So they could instead consider lefty swinger Kevin Kiermaier, who is also an elite defensive player.

But with Joyce, Rodriguez and Forsythe all available to play the outfield, they may opt for the best overall player or biggest bat.

That could be veteran Wilson Betemit, a switch-hitting corner infielder on a minor-league deal looking to come back after missing most of 2013 with injury. He has yet to report because of visa issues. Or Jayson Nix, a scrappy pro's pro, also on a minor-league deal, who hits right-handed and can play the middle infield. Or rookie Vince Belnome, a lefty swinger with impressive minor-league numbers (.412 career on-base percentage) who can play the corners.

Feb. 28 best guess: Guyer.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

As games begin, Rays focus on roster choices 02/27/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 27, 2014 10:48pm]

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