PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays already faced difficult decisions in setting their final roster. Now some injuries could make the process even more painful.
INF Willy Aybar is questionable to open the season due to a left hamstring strain, and OF Matt Joyce's chances of being recovered enough from a right elbow strain aren't much better, "truly 50-50," according to manager Joe Maddon on Thursday.
If Aybar is going to miss extended time, it could open a roster spot for Hank Blalock, the two-time All-Star in camp on a minor-league deal, to provide backup at first and third and another lefty bat.
If Joyce isn't ready, the Rays could keep INF Reid Brignac, who seemed otherwise on the bubble because INF/OF Sean Rodriguez appears to have earned a spot. Or, in either case, they could opt to keep out-of-options INF/OF Elliot Johnson.
Aybar, who missed the first 2½ weeks of camp with a left wrist sprain, has been limited since Monday and has just 16 at-bats.
"That's a little bit of a concern," Maddon said. "Between the wrist and now this, that's put him behind a little bit."
Joyce's elbow became an issue March 11, and he hasn't played the field since (though he can DH with no problem).
"He's continuing to work on it. He's able to throw. He's not been able to throw to game standards yet," Maddon said. "He's not awful. I just don't know if he's going to get to that point by the time the season starts."
Blalock was an All-Star third baseman in 2003-04 but after shoulder problems has spent more time recently at first and DH. He has been taking ground balls at third with plans for a Sunday start and said, "If they need me to fill in over there, I'm good to go."
NAVI NEWS: There was positive injury news as C Dioner Navarro worked out on the field for the first time since bruising a nerve in his left shin Saturday.
He did throwing and footwork drills, including 50 squats to simulate game action, and hit in the cage with plans to take batting practice on the field today.
"We were testing it pretty good," he said, "with pretty good results."
Navarro said he expects to return for Tuesday's exhibition and "most definitely" will be ready to open the season.
GAME DETAILS: CF B.J. Upton had two more two-out RBIs and Brignac knocked in the go-ahead run in the seventh against the Twins as the Rays improved to 15-7, three wins shy of their spring record. … LHP David Price allowed seven hits (including two homers) and three runs in an 84-pitch, six-plus inning outing that Maddon labeled his "best outing of the spring." … RF Pat Burrell went back and made a nifty catch to rob Orlando Hudson.
RELIEF WATCH: Typically, Rays officials say spring training performance doesn't matter much in their evaluations and decision-making. But in sorting out the four relievers competing for the final bullpen spot — Joaquin Benoit, Mike Ekstrom, Dale Thayer and long shot Heath Rollins — that's exactly what they're going to rely on, Maddon said.
After praising Benoit on Tuesday and Thayer and Rollins on Wednesday, Maddon touted Ekstrom on Thursday after a solid two-inning outing.
"It probably has to be about the thin slice, what we're reading right now," Maddon said.
MISCELLANY: INF Dan Johnson cleared waivers, and the Rays are waiting to hear if he accepts an outright assignment to Triple-A Durham or becomes a free agent. … RHP Matt Bush, the 2004 No. 1 overall pick trying to resurrect his career with the Rays, makes his debut today in a Class A exhibition. … Maddon praised minor-league coordinator Skeeter Barnes for his preparation of the young outfielders.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com