PORT CHARLOTTE — As difficult as the roster decisions have been — and will continue to be — during the final week of spring training, manager Joe Maddon said the Rays are sending more big league-caliber players to the minors than they ever have.
And the biggest beneficiary will be Triple-A manager Charlie Montoyo, with Maddon joking it ramps up the pressure to win the International League title.
"Durham should be happy," Maddon said. "No excuses, (Montoyo) better eat last. He might have a better chance to eat last than we do."
Maddon said his problem can be good or bad; good that the organization has accumulated so much depth, bad that deserving players might be demoted. But spring served as a showcase and evaluation period for many new faces, some of whom still could help Tampa Bay this season.
There were two candidates for "Mr. March," first baseman/outfielder Jerry Sands and outfielder Jeremy Moore, who tied for the team lead with three home runs. Right-handed reliever Brad Boxberger, optioned to Durham as part of eight cuts Thursday night, has impressed Maddon since he was acquired from the Padres in the Alex Torres offseason trade. So did righty Steve Geltz and lefty Adam Liberatore.
"I really believe Liberatore is a major-league pitcher," Maddon said.
Ali Solis, signed in November, is set to be the starting catcher at Durham and will be called up if there's an injury to Ryan Hanigan or Jose Molina.
"It just speaks to the work our front office and scouting department has done over the last several years," Maddon said. "It's a very interesting group."
The group will get bigger over the next week. The Rays will decide on their fifth starter today, and if right-hander Jake Odorizzi isn't it, he'll lead a stacked Bulls rotation. Maddon said they want to settle on the final bench spot and remaining couple of openings in the bullpen by the middle of next week to give everyone time to get acclimated.
"There's so many good players," Maddon said. "That makes it very difficult."
For Sands, claimed off waivers from the Pirates in December, and Moore, signed as a minor-league free agent in January, they were just happy to make a great first impression.
Sands, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-handed hitter, drew attention with his bat, hitting .324 with five doubles. But Maddon liked how agile he was defensively for his size, showing the ability to play first base and the corner outfield spots. That didn't surprise pitcher Chris Archer, who grew up in the same small town of Clayton, N.C. They were co-conference players of the year in high school.
"It's pretty cool we can be in the same organization," said Sands, 26, who is a substitute teacher in the offseason, "and, hopefully, the same big-league team."
Moore, 26, an athletic, left-handed hitter, has played just eight big-league games with the Angels and had hip surgery in 2012. He hit .276 with three doubles. Maddon called Moore a scout's dream for his skills defensively and on the basepaths and pop at the plate.
"It's been fun to be here," said Moore, who was reassigned to the minors Tuesday. "The environment has been so relaxed and enjoyable. It's absolutely the most fun I've had in a couple of years."
While their spring performances opened some eyes, Maddon wants to see Sands and Moore do it consistently in the minors. But they, like many others, could be back.
"Both are really interesting," Maddon said. "Both have made tremendous impressions. It's not only about hitting. They definitely — make-up wise — fit into our program."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]