PORT CHARLOTTE — The biggest decision the Rays face in the final days leading up to next Sunday's season opener is one they didn't expect to have to make — sorting out how to cover for injured closer Brad Boxberger at least into if not through May.
Having traded Jake McGee during the winter for Corey Dickerson, the Rays don't have an obvious replacement. Instead, they are sifting through assorted options, checking around for outside upgrades but focusing primarily on internal candidates.
The logical thought process is to determine who is best qualified to do the job, be it Alex Colome, who has the most high-end arsenal; or Danny Farquhar, who has the most experience; or Xavier Cedeno, who might be the most trustworthy.
But it's not as simple as picking the best man.
With this decision, as with several they face before submitting their roster at noon next Sunday, there can be much more to consider.
Rays officials also have to weigh what's best for the overall team, in terms of the trickle-down effect on the whole roster. They have to consider not only the present impact but the future — weeks, months, even seasons ahead. While the goal is presumably to put the team on the field that can win the most games this year, they have to go beyond stats to factor in contract status, salary and roster management.
"We will have some difficult decisions here in the next week," manager Kevin Cash said.
A look at some of those pending decisions, and some insight into how they will make them:
The Rays don't plan to identify a single replacement for Boxberger, talking about a committee approach with several candidates.
"A lot of it is going to be dependent upon situations within games and across a series of games," baseball operations president Matt Silverman said. "There aren't going to be set roles, but certainly you will see some predispositions in the first couple of series as we work through those situations."
In other words, they're going to see how it goes and make adjustments as they see how certain pitchers respond to the mental and physical pressures — which can't be simulated, or overstated — of getting the 27th out.
"We're going to learn a lot more about some of these relievers early on," Silverman said.
There will be several other factors in play as well:
One is making sure they don't weaken the setup crew to where they don't get to the ninth with the lead.
For example, Colome might be of more value being used to seize control of a game with several dominant innings than being saved for the last one. Same with Cedeno, who is slated to be their top lefty slayer at any critical late-inning juncture. Plus, moving Cedeno back forces their other lefty, Enny Romero, into higher leverage work he hasn't handled.
Another issue is roster structure. Though Farquhar had a couple of months closing for Seattle in 2013, he is not a sure bet to even be in the Rays bullpen on opening day since he has an option left and can be sent straight to the minors.
Though only four of the seven bullpen spots are locked in (Cedeno, Colome, Romero, Ryan Webb), the Rays could at least temporarily reassign starter Erasmo Ramirez and add impressive veteran lefty Dana Eveland (who then can't be sent down without the risk of being lost on waivers).
That could leave two spots or, depending on what they do position player-wise, maybe just one for the group of Farquhar, Steve Geltz, Andrew Bellatti and Matt Andriese. Having optionable relievers is important as a way to always shuttle in a fresh arm.
Whatever plan they do come up with is likely to change, anyway.
Let's say they "predispose" that Colome is the guy. But let's say Chris Archer gets them into the seventh next Sunday with a two-run lead and puts the leadoff man on. And let's say the Blue Jays have the right-handed power trio of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion due up.
Cash and pitching coach Jim Hickey may decide Colome is the best man for that job, and they'll deal later with the eighth and ninth, gambling that that situation may not be as hot.
That mix-and-match approach could work, and someone like Romero could suddenly take to the role and develop the necessary confidence. But there is also a downside, as Hickey said it's typically "not a good situation" when the pitchers don't know whom the bullpen phone is ringing for.
"That may be unavoidable for a little while," he said, "but I think it will work itself out fairly quickly."
The Loney dilemma
In acquiring Logan Morrison, signing Steve Pearce then trading for Corey Dickerson, the Rays forced James Loney, their first baseman the previous three seasons, out of a position.
Morrison (a lefty hitter like Loney) and Pearce are set to share first base, with Dickerson (another lefty) getting the bulk of the DH at-bats they otherwise could have had. Simply put, they have one too many pieces.
And after months of talking about what to do with Loney — who doesn't hit for much power but is the best defensive first baseman of the three — they have to do something about it.
The preferred option is to trade him, preferably for a serviceable reliever, even if they have to pay some of his $8 million salary. The White Sox, given Adam LaRoche's retirement, would seem a possibility.
Less appealing, but increasingly realistic, is for the Rays to release Loney and swallow the whole salary. That seems uncharacteristic given their usual financial posture, but not unprecedented (Pat Burrell, Grant Balfour) as they may just consider it sunk money.
There are other options. They could trade Morrison instead. They could open a spot in the outfield, via trade (Desmond Jennings, Steven Souza Jr., Brandon Guyer) or demotion (Souza) and move Dickerson there and Morrison back to DH.
Or they could buy time — in case they or another team loses a key player to injury — by keeping Loney as a defensive replacement for a few weeks since they don't need a fifth starter and could have an extra roster spot available.
Loney, if anything, complicated the situation by reporting to camp in great shape and having a good spring. And he, more than anyone else, is curious to see what happens.
So much is analyzed, discussed, written and radio-voiced about setting the lineup, yet we all know it's going to be in flux throughout the season. Especially for a team such as the Rays that is so matchup oriented.
But it has been a major topic, and it's about to be finalized, so here goes …
The Rays set their lineup as much for the start of the game as the end, anticipating what bullpen moves the opposing manager would like to make in a close game and trying to make it as difficult as possible for him.
To facilitate, Cash likes to alternate right- and left-handed hitters, at least against the more common right-handed starters. (Against lefties, they are more willing to stack right-handers, knowing they like the late-game pinch-hit options.)
Since Evan Longoria wants to hit third, the Rays are likely to slot a right-hander at the top, with Logan Forsythe looking like the choice. Also, they plan, at least for now, to keep speedy and game-changing lefty-swinging Kevin Kiermaier near the bottom, but not ninth so he doesn't have the catcher clogging the bases in front of him.
How it could look next Sunday vs. Toronto's Marcus Stroman:
1. 2B Logan Forsythe, R
2. 1B Logan Morrison, L
3. 3B Evan Longoria, R
4. DH Corey Dickerson, L
5. LF Desmond Jennings, R
6. SS Brad Miller, L
7. RF Steven Souza Jr., R
8. CF Kevin Kiermaier, L
9. C Curt Casali, R
All three catchers — Curt Casali, Hank Conger and Rene Rivera — competing for the two jobs have had good camps, showing their strengths and improving their weaknesses.
Casali has gotten better at blocking balls in the dirt. Rivera has maintained a new up-the-middle, less-is-more hitting approach. Conger has improved his controlling of the running game.
"They've all worked really hard and they've all improved in areas we were hoping they would," catching coach Jamie Nelson said.
Casali offers the best total package — game-calling and staff handling, defensive work, throwing, swinging a potent bat — and seems the safest bet and the likely starter.
Which would make the other spot a choice between:
• Rivera, who hit .178 with a .488 on-base plus slugging percentage last year in a rough Rays debut but is the best, and among the tops in the game, at shutting down a running game, a key for a pitching-and-defense oriented team like the Rays.
• Conger, who threw out one — yes, one — of 43 attempted base-stealers last season with Houston but has the best hands, is the best receiver and pitch framer and has quickly learned the staff. Plus, he has some pop at the plate and is a switch-hitter, which can be of late-game strategic benefit.
This decision could come down to maintaining assets.
Rivera is out of options, meaning the Rays can't send him to the minors without risking losing him on waivers. Conger has an option, so they can send him to Triple A.
That's the safe choice, and it gives the Rays a more experienced option than Luke Maile at Durham if there is an injury. But they would have to pay Conger his major-league salary of $1.5 million, a lot in that situation.
So, at a time when a number of teams are looking for backup catchers, the Rays could deal Conger (or Rivera) and "trade down" by picking up more of a typical Triple-A backup catcher who would make about $1 million less.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.