Saturday, January 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Spring decisions for Rays

PORT CHARLOTTE — For all the roster reconstruction the Rays did in what executive vice president Andrew Friedman jokes is the misnomered offseason — replacing eight of last year's core 25 players — they don't appear to have that much to do this spring.

Despite parting ways with the workhorse leader of their rotation and three key members of their American League-best bullpen, the Rays open camp today with 11 of their 12 pitchers seemingly set, although some roles are to be determined.

And despite losing their leading hitter, two of their top three home run and RBI men and one of their most versatile bench players, the Rays similarly can all but identify 12 of their 13 position players, with only the backup catcher spot undecided.

So what, over the next 47 days — the extra week courtesy of the World Baseball Classic — will they spend their time on?

Well …

For starters

They are not going to replace James Shields, the veteran right-hander who was traded to Kansas City for a package led by blue-chip outfield prospect Wil Myers.

But they do have to have five starters in the rotation.

Three are set, barring injury: Cy Young winner David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore.

The other two are likely to come from the group of Alex Cobb (who has the edge), Jeff Niemann and Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona), though Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi will get looks.

Cobb, based on what he did last year, has an edge but not necessarily a job. Both Niemann (injuries) and Hernandez (off-field issues) are coming off down seasons. Whoever isn't in the rotation is headed to the bullpen, though Niemann (who is out of options) could be a trade candidate.

Guessing today: Cobb and Hernandez

Pitching in

While Burke Badenhop, Wade Davis and J.P. Howell are gone, the Rays return closer Fernando Rodney, setup men Jake McGee and Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth to their pen. Cesar Ramos, who is out of options, is in line to take over as the second lefty. And the Hernandez/Niemann "loser" makes six.

That leaves one spot, with veteran Jamey Wright, who likely wouldn't have agreed to a minor-league deal without promise of a legit shot at a major-league job; Brandon Gomes; and Josh Lueke the most likely candidates. Wright's ground-ball style fits in well with their defense.

Guess: Wright

Catching on

If things go the way the Rays plan, the only decision among the position players could end up being the "battle" between Jose Lobaton and Chris Gimenez for the backup catcher job behind Jose Molina.

And given that Lobaton is out of options and would have to be exposed to waivers before he can be sent down, and Gimenez has an option, it may not even be much of a competition.

Otherwise, the 11 players look to be Yunel Escobar, Sam Fuld, Desmond Jennings, Kelly Johnson, Matt Joyce, James Loney, Evan Longoria, Ryan Roberts, Sean Rodriguez, Luke Scott and Ben Zobrist.

Guess: Lobaton

Lining up

The Rays like flexibility and versatility among their players, and they could have more of it this year than ever. Potentially, only three position players will be in the same spot on a pretty much everyday basis — Longoria at third base, Escobar at shortstop, Jennings in centerfield. (Plus, Scott at DH). Zobrist will play every day, but splitting time between at least rightfield and second base.

Spring will be to determine who else can do what else, as they seek to sort out what could be a quartet at second base, a trio in leftfield and platoons at first base and in right. Among the questions: Can Johnson handle the outfield, where he last played in 2005 before switching full time to second base? Or Roberts? Is Rodriguez the best right-handed option at first base? Will Fuld, a pesky lefty swinger, provide tough-enough at-bats vs. lefty pitchers?

Guess: What's the point? Joe Maddon has averaged 133-plus lineups the past four seasons.

Sizing up

Of all the scenarios being pondered with Myers, the least likely is that he has a monstrous spring, forces the Rays to shuffle their plans and makes the opening day roster.

A tad less likely is that he looks every bit of a 22-year-old who has less than 100 games above the Double-A level and hit his 37 homers in the friendly confines of the Pacific Coast and Texas leagues and spends all season at Durham until a September callup.

More likely for his arrival is something, and some time, in the middle, and their spring evaluation can go a long way toward determining that.

Not so much by what Myers does, but how he does it. In addition to making their own assessments of his game — strengths and weaknesses — the Rays need to get a better feel for his personality, work ethic, dedication, coachability, all the kind of things that will factor into their decision. While the Rays tend to be patient with prospects — and, yes, there are financial considerations as well — they prefer to keep them in the majors once they get there.

Today's guess: Oh, for fun, let's say June 13, when they're hosting the Royals.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]

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