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Rays face hard decisions for playoff roster

BALTIMORE — Here, on the 179th day of the season, the auditions are about to start.

In the bullpen, in the starting rotation, maybe even in the outfield, there are major decisions to be made, and yet, very little time remaining on the calendar.

For Tampa Bay, this is the challenge of the season's final days. Not only are the Rays trying to wrap up the American League East title and push the Angels for the best record in the league, but they are also figuring out what their roster will look like for the playoffs next week.

The chore is not as easy as it might seem, not for a team that has gotten this far with an amazing blend of versatility and depth. And with a dugout full of role players, the Rays have more options than openings.

"We have a lot of tough decisions," said executive vice president Andrew Friedman. "And I would say that's a good thing."

That's the optimistic view. The more critical assessment is the Rays have some problems with injuries and inexperience, and they must decide where they want to place their faith.

For instance, do they go with a three-man or four-man rotation in the division series? And did Edwin Jackson pitch himself out of consideration for a four-man rotation on Wednesday night?

Do you consider rushing Carl Crawford back from the disabled list — as he clearly prefers — or has Fernando Perez made it easier to absorb Crawford's absence?

Most critical of all, what do you do with Troy Percival? A week away from the postseason, the Rays are still without a clear decision on a closer.

Percival has not had a save opportunity in two weeks and has thrown fewer than 16 innings in the past three months. His hamstring injury has given way to a knee injury, which has given way to a sore back.

The Rays are not concerned with Percival's arm, which still hits the low to mid 90s on the radar gun. The issue is whether his cranky back will allow him to have good enough command of his pitches or to throw on back-to-back nights. His last half-dozen appearances have not been reassuring.

Manager Joe Maddon has given Percival a lot of leeway, based on the right-hander's performance in the first half and the team's need for him to do well, but he acknowledges there is not much room left to negotiate.

"I love the man, always have. We go way back," Maddon said. "But we have to do what's best for the Rays, period. When I make that decision, there can't be any kind of nostalgic thoughts wafting through my mind. It's just a matter of doing the right thing at that moment."

Percival has gotten two rounds of epidural injections in his back in St. Petersburg and rejoined the team at Camden Yards on Wednesday. The hope is to get him in at least two of the next four games in Detroit to gauge his health and effectiveness.

For Percival, these four days will likely determine whether he is the closer next week or the man with more saves than all but seven pitchers in history who is left off the playoff roster.

"Hopefully, if I can get out there the next four, five days, it can be good enough. If it's not, it's about these guys going out and having the best opportunity to win," Percival said. "Even if I tell them I'm healthy, if I'm not the best option to go out there, then I shouldn't be out there."

The second part of the equation is what to do if Percival is not ready to go. Maddon has said he is comfortable with several pitchers in the ninth inning, but he has relied mostly on Dan Wheeler during Percival's absences. Wheeler has filled in adequately but is nowhere close to automatic as a closer.

His save percentage of 66 the past two seasons is far below the 80-85 percent you usually see from the game's top closers.

That's why it might be interesting to see whether the Rays give Grant Balfour a chance to close games in Detroit. He has closer-type stuff, but his control and lack of experience in the ninth inning are concerns. Wheeler may have the temperament of a closer, but Balfour is clearly more attractive based on talent.

Taking the drama a bit further, the Rays will need another reliever to fill either Wheeler's or Balfour's role as a setup man if Percival is not able to close games.

That means David Price may finally get the chance to play the role of this season's Joba Chamberlain. The Rays had considered bringing Price to the majors earlier this summer to get him accustomed to working out of the bullpen, but they opted to keep him in the starting rotation in Triple A as an insurance policy.

Now they have four days — and possibly two appearances — to evaluate him as a seventh- or eighth-inning pitcher.

The Rays are one game away from winning the AL East, but they still have plenty of decisions to make before the postseason begins.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Rays face hard decisions for playoff roster 09/24/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 26, 2008 12:03pm]

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