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Rays have few decisions left this spring

PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays opened spring training five weeks — or was it five months? — ago with their team essentially intact and only a handful of questions, and the good news from their perspective is that with opening day now (finally!) only 14 days away, that really hasn't changed.

Injuries have been minor. Issues insignificant. Inconsistent performances by a couple of key players, such as starter Matt Moore, seemingly not much of a concern. Positional experiments have gone fine. Attitudes have been positive, work good. The World Baseball Classic hasn't been too disruptive, though with closer Fernando Rodney still pitching and catcher Jose Molina not playing much.

So, really, there's not much for Rays officials to sort out between now and April 2.

"You could almost say 90 percent looks as you would think, as you would expect," manager Joe Maddon said Sunday.

So here's a look at some issues still to be decided:

Fifth starter

The decision between incumbent right-handers Jeff Niemann and free-agent signee Roberto Hernandez (the former Fausto Carmona) is the biggest and most difficult remaining, and most impactful because it affects other players.

Both have pitched relatively well this spring, with similar numbers:

G ERA IP H BB K Avg.

Niemann5 2.13 12.2 11 3 9 .234

Hernandez5 3.60 15 13 5 12 .236

Injuries have been an issue — and there is a sense will continue to be — with Niemann, who was shut down at the end of last season with shoulder inflammation (after coming back from a broken leg). This spring he has thrown with no restrictions and said he feels healthy, though slightly diminished velocity in his last outing raised some questions.

Though Hernandez, who missed most of last season as a result of his identity fraud arrest, has not had good results with Cleveland since an impressive 2007 campaign (33-48, 5.01 from 2008-11), the potential to work 200 innings appeals to the Rays, especially without James Shields in the rotation.

Essentially, it could come down to quality vs. quantity.

"Figuring out how to set up our rotation is probably the biggest decision we have,'' executive vice president Andrew Friedman said Monday. "It's a really good problem to have with two really capable, good, quality major-league starters. We'll continue to debate it and talk through what puts us in the best position to win games.''

Whoever doesn't make the rotation could end up in the bullpen, though neither seems like a comfortable fit, and that would keep them from keeping a more versatile reliever. That makes a trade seem more likely, and though both make around $3 million, Niemamn, 30, probably would be the one to go. The Rockies have already been mentioned as a possibility.

Bullpen

Five of the seven spots are set, assuming Kyle Farnsworth is indeed as healthy as he says, and Rodney's arm is still attached after his heavy WBC usage. Others in are Joel Peralta and lefties Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos. The sixth slot seems set aside for veteran Jamey Wright, who has had a decent spring.

That leaves one spot for either the Niemann/Hernandez loser, or for Brandon Gomes, who has drawn Maddon's raves with a dazzling spring, allowing only two hits and no walks in seven shutout innings over six appearances. Gomes, however, does have options, so he can be sent to the minors.

Backup catcher

In short, Chris Gimenez has played better, is more versatile and seems more deserving of the job, but Jose Lobaton — who is out of options and thus could be lost on waivers if sent down — is probably going to get it because the Rays can't afford to lose him. Gimenez is hitting .355 (11-for-31) with an .898 on-base plus slugging, Lobaton .160 (4-for-25) with a .401 OPS.

That could change if the Rays acquired a more experienced catcher to stash at Triple A, or found a better backup to pair with Molina, though that's tough, especially with other teams looking, too.

Extra outfielder

Sam Fuld has the job and is supposed to be recovered from right hamstring tightness in time to be ready. But if not, and he were to need a short-term DL stint, calling up Brandon Guyer, who can play all three spots and is on the 40-man roster, probably makes the most sense. Stephen Vogt and Gimenez would be other possibilities (with Sean Rodriguez filling in in center if needed), along with non-roster options such as Shelley Duncan and Mike Fontenot.

Batting order

Maddon insists the only thing set is that Desmond Jennings will lead off, and that Evan Longoria will hit third or fourth. His primary concern is putting one or two high on-base percentage guys ahead of Longoria (such as Ben Zobrist) but to also have someone hitting behind Longoria who offers some protection (such as, well, Ben Zobrist), and then not to stack too many lefties — Matt Joyce, Luke Scott, James Loney, Kelly Johnson — the rest of the way. It will be a tougher puzzle to sort out against left-handed starters.

Rotation

Though the top four starters are set up to be David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Moore and Alex Cobb (who has had the best spring), Maddon has suggested several times they may not pitch in that order. The concern seems to be starting Hellickson and Moore back-to-back since both have had issues working deep into games, which could put a dangerous strain on the bullpen to cover too much on consecutive days. If Hernandez is in the rotation, he could end up between them.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com.

Rays have few decisions left this spring 03/18/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 12:18am]
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