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Rays' position battles heading into spring training

Newcomer Corey Dickerson, left, is expected to be the primary DH, while wild-haired Chris Archer, right, is the established ace. Tim Beckham, center, is a favorite to be the backup middle infielder.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Newcomer Corey Dickerson, left, is expected to be the primary DH, while wild-haired Chris Archer, right, is the established ace. Tim Beckham, center, is a favorite to be the backup middle infielder.

There are plenty of things Rays officials don't know as they head to Port Charlotte this week to open spring training.

Who from a group of inexperienced options led by Alex Colome will emerge as the primary setup man for closer Brad Boxberger?

What, besides having Evan Longoria hitting third, will the lineup look like as the team sorts out how best to deploy its new weapons?

And how many more hat sizes will All-Star ace Chris Archer have to go up to contain his mushrooming mane?

But one thing the Rays seem certain of is that the combination of players they brought in during an active offseason and the returnees has the potential, if healthy, to be very, very good, propelling them from an 80-win club back to playoff contention.

"The roster we take to camp features new talent and helps create the depth we will need for 162 games," baseball operations president Matt Silverman said Friday. "We should have a more formidable offense without sacrificing the defense that helps key our run prevention.

"If we can maintain our health, especially among our starting pitchers, we have the talent to compete all season long."

Here's a breakdown of how that breaks down:

Starting rotation

The starting rotation is the strongest element of the roster and the most stable going into the spring. Assuming all are healthy, which Silverman and Co. found last spring is far from a given, the rotation has the potential to be the best in not only the division but the whole league.

With Archer big-haired but not big-headed at the front and Jake Odorizzi and Erasmo Ramirez providing solid support, the keys are lefties Matt Moore and Drew Smyly.

Both finished last season strong after missing significant time with injuries: Moore recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery and Smyly rehabbing a shoulder that had a tear in the rotator cuff. The Rays are counting, obviously, on both to pick up where they left off, with Smyly — who also had the burden of sitting through an arbitration hearing (that he won) — the bigger question.

Trading Nathan Karns to Seattle for bats definitely left the Rays a little thin depth-wise, but they do have Matt Andriese to fill in and top prospect Blake Snell looming.

The lefty almost certainly will open the season at Triple-A Durham. But, after some "seasoning" likely to coincide with the minimum 20 days he needs to be in the minors to make sure his free agency is delayed a year, Snell could be a viable option if there is an injury or the rotation needs a jolt. Snell, whose workload will be watched, could also be a factor if the Rays were to decide Ramirez could be of more use bolstering the bullpen.

Plus the Rays are expecting in-season reinforcements with Alex Cobb, who is aiming for a late July return from his Tommy John surgery, and waiver claim Chase Whitley, on a similar timetable.

One other factor that could shape the staff (and even the whole roster) is the early season schedule: The Rays could go until April 16 without needing a fifth starter, then only once more until as late as May 9.

Bullpen

As much of a strength as the rotation looks, the bullpen is full of questions, exacerbated by the trade of lefty Jake McGee.

The only certainties going into camp are Boxberger is the closer, Xavier Cedeno is a key lefty weapon and Colome and lefty Enny Romero, who are both out of options, are part of the squad.

How the Rays will fill the other three (or at times four) spots will be one of the main story lines in the spring, and it will be an evolving narrative as they need more help.

Steve Geltz, impressive until tiring at the end of his 70-appearance rookie season, will be part of it, as will Danny Farquhar, acquired from Seattle.

Other candidates include Andrew Bellatti, a hard-throwing righty who was impressive during his rookie season; veteran lefty Dana Eveland, a nonroster invitee; and possibly invitee Jhan Marinez. (Lefty Jonny Venters, rehabbing from his third Tommy John surgery, is a potential midseason option.)

But the Rays need to keep looking for more. They talked about Tyler Clippard and with Tommy Hunter, who both went elsewhere, but they have other free agent options — including free agent Ryan Webb, the Clearwater native — trade possibilities and possible waiver claims.

One key to constructing the bullpen is having some roster flexibility so they can shuffle in fresh arms when needed. Because Geltz, Farquhar and Bellatti all have options, they are likely to be part of that shuttle, potentially with some of the prospects as other spots are filled externally.

Infield

The Rays couldn't be more locked in at two of the spots, with third base manned by Longoria, the team leader coming off a solid .270, 21-homer, 73-RBI, .764 on-base-plus-slugging-percentage season; and second base by 2015 team MVP Logan Forsythe, who went .281-17-68-.804.

And they are pretty well set at shortstop with newcomer Brad Miller, the lefty swinger with some pop acquired from Seattle. (At least unless the unlikely option of Ian Desmond becoming such a free agent bargain that the Rays are willing to give up the No. 13 draft pick to sign him.)

But they have a three-way mess at first base, with incumbent James Loney, and his $8 million salary, returning to find newcomers Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce in his place.

As much as Silverman says they want to get through the spring to make sure everyone is healthy, it's obvious something has to happen. Morrison and Pearce could become a potent (though not necessarily happy) platoon at first, but the Rays have to move Loney and are willing to pay some of the money to do so. But if a trade doesn't develop, would they eat it all?

If not, they'd eventually have to trade either Morrison or one of their outfielders just to make the usual 13-man position player arrangement work.

As it is, they are going to have room to carry only one backup middle infielder. Tim Beckham seems the likely choice over Nick Franklin or rookie Taylor Motter (who does have the benefit of also playing the outfield), and he's also a good right-handed hitting option at short. Pearce can fill in at third or even second if needed.

Outfield

The acquisition of power-hitting Corey Dickerson from Colorado (for McGee) seemed to leave the Rays with too many outfielders.

But the plan, heading into camp anyway, is to keep them all. Expect them to use Dickerson primarily as the DH, making Desmond Jennings, who is supposedly healthy, the leftfielder. That puts Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier in center, Steven Souza Jr. in right and Brandon Guyer as the top reserve — and a starter somewhere vs. lefty pitching.

What could change that plan? Certainly health, as the Rays have to be confident Jennings, limited to 28 games in 2015 primarily due to left knee issues, is able and ready to play every day. Somewhat related is value. If the Rays sense they could get enough in trade for Jennings or Guyer — perhaps that late-inning reliever they need? — they know there isn't much dropoff to Mikie Mahtook as the next option, with Pearce also available. Or Dickerson could prove to be a better outfielder than he has showed.

Catcher

Curt Casali's 2015 power burst — 10 homers in 101 at-bats for an MLB-best 10-1 ratio — thrust him into the starter's role. And when the Rays picked up lefty-hitting Hank Conger from the Astros to pair with Casali, it seemed Rene Rivera, coming off an abysmal offensive performance (.178-5-26-.489), was done.

But the Rays have hung on to Rivera, who in theory is still the most complete catcher of the three. Rivera just spent a month working on his hitting at Luis Alicea's Delray Beach academy and seems more confident and comfortable, so it will be interesting to see if he looks more this spring like the hitter the Rays previously expected.

If so, it could make for a tougher choice between him and Conger, who had his own problems last year, throwing out only one of 43 potential basestealers. A better question would be if the Rays would keep both veterans and send Casali back to the minors.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.

In with the new

Acquired in trade: C Hank Conger, OF/DH Corey Dickerson, RHP Danny Farquhar, SS Brad Miller, 1B/OF Logan Morrison

Signed as free agent: 1B/OF Steve Pearce

Claimed off waivers: RHP Chase Whitley

Added to 40-man roster: RHP Jacob Faria, RHP Taylor Guerrieri, LHP Blake Snell, INF/OF Taylor Motter

Out with the old

Free-agent departures: SS Asdrubal Cabrera (signed with Mets), RHP Brandon Gomes (Cubs), DH/OF/1B John Jaso (Pirates), OF Daniel Nava (Angels), OF Grady Sizemore (unsigned)

Traded: RHP Nathan Karns (to Mariners), LHP Jake McGee (to Rockies), LHP C.J. Riefenhauser (to Mariners, now with Cubs), RHP Kirby Yates (to Indians, now with Yankees)

Lost on waivers: OF Joey Butler (Indians)

Released: C J.P. Arencibia (Phillies)

Rays' position battles heading into spring training 02/13/16 [Last modified: Saturday, February 13, 2016 9:02pm]
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