PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays moved closer to setting their opening day roster Wednesday by resolving two of their biggest questions:
In what was somewhat of a surprise, they released Rene Rivera, giving the second catcher's job to Hank Conger, with plans for him to share time with Curt Casali.
In what was nothing of a surprise, they told first baseman James Loney he would not be on the team and in the next few days would be either traded or released, which would require them to pay his full $8 million salary.
With Loney out, the Rays have basically two cuts left to make by Sunday's noon roster deadline, debating the merits of a fifth bench player vs. an eighth reliever as they consider pitchers Andrew Bellatti, Danny Farquhar and Dana Eveland plus outfielder Mikie Mahtook for the final two spots.
Conger, acquired from Houston, impressed the Rays with his handling of the pitchers, showing why he is known as one of the game's top pitch-framers and receivers.
"The pitchers love throwing to Hank," manager Kevin Cash said. "They've all raved about the way he receives the ball. And he's gotten to know our pitchers really well."
That Conger, 28, has some pop in his bat and is a switch-hitter also helped. Plus, the Rays feel confident that his historically bad performance last year in throwing out runners — one of 43 — won't be a problem, due to adjustments to his technique and their strategy in holding on runners.
"It's something I'm sure he'll continue to work on," Cash said. "Our pitchers, they pride themselves on giving the catchers a chance to throw."
Rivera had shown improvement in his offense this spring after an abysmal 2015 season following his acquisition from San Diego in the Wil Myers deal, but apparently not enough to accompany his elite throwing ability. By releasing him Wednesday, the Rays saved three-fourths of his $1.7 million salary, paying only 45 days termination pay.
"I'm a little surprised," Rivera said by phone after clearing out his locker. "I was having a good spring. I thought I might change their mind. But it's part of the business. … It's all good."
Cash acknowledged that Rivera, who hit .178 with a .488 on-base plus slugging percentage, had improved, but "we just didn't see it as the best fit on the club going forward."
Conger and Casali will split time evenly, Cash said, based mostly on offensive matchups and not paired with specific starters.
Loney's departure had been expected — and reported by the Tampa Bay Times — all spring, as there was no room for him to play following the acquisitions of Corey Dickerson (to DH) and Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce (to split first base).
"It had to be somebody (to go), right?" Loney said in the clubhouse. "It is what it is."
The only question seemed to be how it was going to be resolved. That remains to be seen, as he left camp by mutual decision after getting word from Cash and baseball operations president Matt Silverman, who didn't comment on the decision.
If anything, Wednesday's news made for an unusual development in an awkward situation, as the Rays have been trying for months to find a deal for the slick fielder who hits for average but little power and are willing to pay a chunk of the money. The Astros, Pirates and White Sox would seem among the possibilities.
"There's been some (interest)," Loney said. "I'd think they're probably trying to trade me, but we'll see how that goes."
If not, the Rays would be responsible for Loney's full $8 million salary, the last segment of the three-year, $21 million deal they signed him to after an impressive debut 2013 season, and he could sign with any team.
"I think it's just going to work out for the best for me," Loney said. "The team was great. Obviously, I wish them the best. The guys were great. I loved my time here, loved the organization, how they gave me a chance after 2012. At the end of the day, you want to play in the big leagues. You want to win, obviously. So we'll see how that goes. …
"Obviously I would have liked to win with these guys. At the end of the day, it's a business."
Times staff writer Greg Auman contributed to this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.