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Injuries add unexpected wild card to Rays' roster choices

By MARC TOPKIN | Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — After an injury-marred month of spring training, the Rays know more about who won't be playing for them on opening day — Rocco Baldelli, Scott Kazmir and Ben Zobrist, to name three — than who will. And with less than two weeks until the March 31 opener at Baltimore, they face considerably more convoluted and complicated decisions than they anticipated.

"Our meetings are no longer going to be shorter," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.

Rather than filling out a few spots at the back end of the pitching staff and a couple of seats on the bench, the Rays find themselves scrambling for help — actively seeking an outfielder for potential platoon duty, trying out players at new positions and cautiously reviewing the depth of their pitching staff.

And, Friedman acknowledged, they have to base the decisions on more than just on-field talent, considering player options and 40-man roster implications.

"One thing we've stressed is that how we open the season is not necessarily how we finish, and options definitely play a part," he said. "It ties into overall roster management, and it's something that's important to us. Last year we were a little exposed depthwise because of some injuries, so now we're ultra-sensitive to try the best we can to reinforce our 25-man roster."

For example, say Jeff Niemann pitched his way into a tossup for a rotation spot with Jason Hammel or Edwin Jackson. The Rays still might prefer to go with Hammel or Jackson because they are out of options (meaning they can't be sent to the minors without the risk of being lost on waivers), while Niemann has options and can be sent down. So by sticking with Hammel or Jackson, they keep all three, then can revisit the decision in a month or two.

Similarly, the Rays put a premium on 40-man roster spots. So players in camp as nonroster invitees with minor-league deals, such as Andy Cannizaro and Eric Hinske, might have a tougher time unseating rostered players such as Elliot Johnson and Joel Guzman. Plus, players taken off the 40-man roster can be lost on waivers, making those decisions doubly tough.

"It's important to us to keep as many options as we can early in the season," Friedman said. "Injuries are a part of the game, and maintaining our depth is important to us, and we have to balance that with putting the right guys on the field as we buy time with some of our injuries.''

A look at what they have to do before setting their 25-man roster March 30:

Rightfield/DH

With Cliff Floyd headed for primarily DH duties, the Rays would like to replace Baldelli with a left-handed hitter who could platoon in right with Jonny Gomes and back up B.J. Upton in center.

But as they look to trade for that guy, they are considering their best in-camp options. Jon Weber and John Rodriguez fit the role better, but Eric Hinske is having such a good spring (.429 average, .484 on-base percentage) that the Rays might consider adding him to the rightfield/DH mix and finding another way to back up center.

Best guess: Unless they find a sweet deal (getting a high-upside young player with options without giving up too much) or a waiver wire pickup, Hinske gets a shot.

Third base

From a pure on-field standpoint, prospect Evan Longoria has presented an impressive case that he's ready for the big leagues, with the decision likely this week.

But there's more to the equation, such as the impact on his eligibility for free agency and arbitration, and intangibles, such as how the Rays think he'll handle failure, how he fits in and what's best for him. "One of the difficult parts," Friedman said, "is that it is subjective."

Best guess: Longoria starts at third — in Triple-A Durham. Willy Aybar has the bag in Baltimore.

Utility men

There are so many scenarios in play it's hard to say what's most likely. Zobrist looked good as a super-utilityman, and now the Rays are trying to use Johnson in the same role for the week or two Zobrist will miss with a fractured thumb. But they still need a backup shortstop, which might be a reach for Johnson. So Cannizaro will have a chance (if his sore back heals), or the Rays could look outside the organization.

Assuming Aybar starts at third, Guzman had a shot at backup duty at first, third and the outfield but hasn't had an impressive spring. If Hinske makes it, Guzman, who has options, might not.

Best guess: Johnson and Guzman, but don't discount a late-spring acquisition.

Backup catcher

The decision between nonroster veteran Mike Difelice and rookie Shawn Riggans could be primarily philosophical.

Keep Difelice in the majors to work with the young pitchers and mentor starter Dioner Navarro while giving the oft-injured Riggans a chance to play every day at Triple A? Or decide it's time to find out if Riggans, 27, can play in the big leagues and create playing time for prospects John Jaso and Hector Gimenez at Durham?

Best guess: Riggans gets the job.

Rotation

When there were two open spots, it looked as if Hammel and Jackson would hold serve, with Andy Sonnanstine headed to a swingman role. But with Kazmir out for what looks like at least a couple of starts, all three are in the mix, though Niemann is making the Rays at least think more about it.

Best guess: Jackson, Hammel and Sonnanstine follow James Shields and Matt Garza.

Bullpen

If Sonnanstine is starting, J.P. Howell looks like the long man and has done well this spring. Scott Dohmann (despite a rough spring) seems to be the leader for the last spot, but Grant Balfour is making a strong pitch. Both are out of options, so whoever doesn't make the team could be lost.

Best guess: Howell and Dohmann.

Roster report

With less than two weeks until opening day, this is what the roster looks like:

Starters (5)

On the team: Matt Garza, James Shields

In the running: Jason Hammel, J.P. Howell, Edwin Jackson, Andy Sonnanstine

On the DL: Scott Kazmir
Relievers (7)

On the team: Gary Glover, Trever Miller, Troy Percival, Al Reyes, Dan Wheeler

In the running: Grant Balfour, Scott Dohmann, Howell
Catchers (2)

On the team: Dioner Navarro

In the running: Mike Difelice*, Josh Paul*, Shawn Riggans
Infielders (6)

On the team: Willy Aybar, Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, Carlos Pena

In the running: Andy Cannizaro*, Joel Guzman, Elliot Johnson, Evan Longoria*

On the DL: Ben Zobrist
Outfielders (5)

On the team: Carl Crawford, Cliff Floyd, Jonny Gomes, B.J. Upton

In the running: Eric Hinske*, John Rodriguez*, Jon Weber*

On the DL: Rocco Baldelli

* nonroster
Marc Topkin, Times staff writer

Injuries add unexpected wild card to Rays' roster choices 03/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 20, 2008 9:33am]
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