DUNEDIN — Halfway through the exhibition season, the Rays still don't know what their bullpen is going to look like.
But, manager Joe Maddon said Sunday, they are pretty sure it's going to end up better than they expected.
"We're going to mix and match a little bit, but I feel as though we have the ingredients to do that," Maddon said. "It's looking pretty good right now. I feel a lot more confident about how it's going to look now than I did on the first day of camp."
For the most part, the competition for the bullpen spots, as well as the two open bench spots, has been stiffer than expected. And settling on a batting order, the other major question of the spring, a bit trickier than thought.
With 18 days until the season opener, here's a look at where they are:
The Rays opened camp figuring four spots were claimed, though right-hander Adam Russell needs to show a little more velocity and command to make sure he joins Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta and Andy Sonnanstine.
And from a field of a dozen candidates for the remaining spots, three appear to have emerged as the leaders: right-hander Juan Cruz, and left-handers Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos.
McGee, a prospect who came up at the end of last season, has an overpowering fastball and good mound presence but needs to continue development of his slider as a much-needed second pitch. Ramos, who had been used as a starter and reliever by the Padres, has an effective three-pitch repertoire and seems to have settled into a bullpen role.
Cruz, a 32-year-old in camp on a minor-league deal whose eight-plus seasons of big-league experience would be a big benefit, has thus far shown in velocity and command that he has recovered from last year's shoulder surgery. But the Rays will have to see more, specifically if and how he can handle pitching back-to-back days, and that could be the biggest determination if he starts the season in the majors or is sent to Triple-A Durham for a while, as Joaquin Benoit was last year.
Even if there's a slight question, the Rays may want to wait so they, as is their wont, can conserve assets. If Cruz starts the season on the roster and is ineffective, they'd risk losing him on waivers if they wanted to send him down.
If Cruz isn't deemed ready, right-hander Mike Ekstrom appears next in line from an up-and-down field for an opening-day spot, with Cory Wade possibly next.
With 10 position players set and first baseman Dan Johnson expected to be the 11th, the Rays are looking to fill the final two spots from a field of five reserves: infielders Joe Inglett, Elliot Johnson and Felipe Lopez; outfielder Sam Fuld; and first baseman Casey Kotchman.
Only, of course, it's not that simple.
In theory, they'd carry one extra infielder and outfielder. But because of the versatility of so many of their players (including Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez, who will be on the team), there are other ways to look at it.
For example, if they kept Elliot Johnson, who can fill in in centerfield, they could skip the extra outfielder and keep Kotchman, assuming that addition to golden defense he can hit enough to be more than a late-inning replacement. Or if they kept Fuld, then Lopez, with experience and a bigger bat, could be a better fit than Elliot Johnson.
Plus, Fuld and both Johnsons are out of options, so they could be lost on waivers, while Inglett, Kotchman and Lopez could be sent to Durham, at least for a while (or until another team offered them a major-league job).
Maddon said Johnny Damon, Evan Longoria and Manny Ramirez are now set in the Nos. 2-3-4 spots. And he made it sound like the most likely leadoff scenario is a platoon between Zobrist (vs. righties) and B.J. Upton.
The rest of the order will be pieced together, primarily based on the pitching matchups. It will be trickier against left-handed starters, as they decide which three of their left-handed hitting position players (Damon, Matt Joyce, Reid Brignac and Dan Johnson) will stay in the lineup each day. Catcher John Jaso, who emerged as the leadoff man against right-handers last season, may end up hitting ninth.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.