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Taking stock of Rays with 2 weeks to go

PORT CHARLOTTE — Monday was the Rays' first and only official off day of the spring, with most of the players planning to do something relaxing. But it also marked two weeks until the season opener, which means team officials have to get busy making decisions.

The Rays didn't have much pending when they began camp: picking the last man on the bench and in the bullpen and settling on the temporary replacement for the back end of the rotation. And they have had — thus far — a relatively uneventful 4 ½ weeks.

But that doesn't mean the decisions have gotten any easier.

"Particularly in the bullpen," manager Joe Maddon said.

Though the ultimate goal is to choose the players who can best help the team, the decisions are not always that straightforward.

Maintaining assets is a factor. Some candidates are out of options and could be lost on waivers if they don't make the team. Others are on minor-league deals and may or may not be willing to go to Triple A.

Another issue is roster space: The Rays will have two open spots on the 40-man roster (after putting Tim Beckham on the 60-day disabled list). And some slots will be filled based on how they relate to the rest of the roster (i.e., would they want all right-handed hitters on the bench?).

"There are going to be very interesting discussions over the next two weeks," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.

Here's some of what they will be talking about:

Bullpen

There are good reasons the pen will be a primary topic: They went from one to possibly three openings with Juan Carlos Oviedo's long visa delay and Cesar Ramos being considered for the rotation. And several pitchers, led by Brandon Gomes and Mark Lowe, have made really strong cases.

Josh Lueke was the favorite because he is out of options, likely would be lost on waivers and may not bring much in trade. In previous callups he has been unable to replicate great minor-league success, and he hasn't had a great spring. But the Rays may not be willing to give up on him just yet, giving him another look for the first month or so.

Oviedo is projected to be a big part of the bullpen but won't pitch in his first game until this weekend, so he is now a longshot to be on the opening day roster.

That would seem to open a spot for Gomes, who has had a tremendous spring (allowing one hit in five appearances) and is a great fit but has the curse of having an option remaining. In a similar position is Brad Boxberger, who was acquired from San Diego.

Then there is Lowe, a 30-year-old veteran on a minor-league deal who Maddon said "has been fantastic" thus far. It would be easy — though not necessarily fair — to pick Lowe and send Gomes and Boxberger to Triple A, maintaining all assets. Or the Rays could send Lowe to Triple A and hope another team doesn't offer him a spot in the majors, since they likely would let him go.

Lowe would seem a good fill-in for Oviedo, but putting him on the roster knowing it's only for a few weeks could backfire — they'd have to run him through waivers, and risk a claim, to send him back to the minors.

Having so much bullpen depth could potentially enhance Ramos' chances to win the No. 5 starter's job, but the Rays say they will make that decision independently. Plus, Ramos is their only true long man, which could be important early on.

"Who's not throwing the ball well?" Maddon said. "And not only not throwing the ball well, but who among them does not deserve to be in the big leagues? … We may end up sending guys back to Triple A that are major-league ready, and that's always a concern."

PREDICTION: Lueke and Gomes stay; Oviedo to DL, Lowe and Boxberger to Triple A.

Bench

Versatile newcomer Logan Forsythe and even-more-versatile Sean Rodriguez appear set (with the other catcher), leaving three players with distinctly different skills for the last spot — Brandon Guyer, a typical fifth outfielder; Jayson Nix, a scrappy middle infielder (plus third); and Wilson Betemit, a veteran who swings the biggest bat and plays first and third.

Guyer has the advantage in being out of options, since the Rays may feel he is on the cusp of a breakout, and he helps defensively given plans to use their fourth outfielder (often Matt Joyce) as the DH.

Nix probably brings the most overall and has drawn Maddon's praise for his professionalism. Betemit could help the most offensively, and is a switch-hitter, but reported to camp late after missing most of 2013 with injury.

Also to consider: Picking Guyer or Nix would make the bench all right-handed; picking Nix or Betemit would require a 40-man roster spot since both are on minor-league deals, and makes Rodriguez the de facto fifth outfielder, though Forsythe and Ben Zobrist can play there.

PREDICTION: Guyer stays; Betemit and Nix to Triple A.

Fifth starter

With injured right-hander Jeremy Hellickson aiming to return around June 1, the Rays need to cover nine to 12 starts. A case can be made for each of the three candidates: left-hander Erik Bedard, a veteran on a minor-league deal; right-hander Jake Odorizzi, their top prospect; and Ramos, who was a starter in the minors. The Rays seem likely to wait to decide until they pitch again this week.

Picking Bedard and giving him four-five starts is the safe choice, allowing the Rays to turn to Odorizzi (or Nathan Karns or Alex Colome) if it doesn't work out.

But the Rays have to be convinced Bedard, who was 11-26, 4.78 over the past two seasons (Pittsburgh, Houston) and averaged barely five innings per start, can be competitive in the rugged AL East. Otherwise it could cost them several games (and blow out their bullpen). There is a March 25 deadline to put him on the roster, release him or pay him a $100,000 bonus to go to Triple A, assuming he is willing (rather than retire).

Odorizzi seems ready and added a hybrid splitter-changeup to his repertoire, but he has had an inconsistent spring, so there may be a gamble with him, too, making Ramos essentially the compromise candidate.

PREDICTION: Odorizzi gets the starting job; Bedard released, Ramos stays in bullpen.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

Taking stock of Rays with 2 weeks to go 03/17/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 17, 2014 9:46pm]

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