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Tampa Bay Rays have few decisions to make this spring

PORT CHARLOTTE — So many of the differences in this spring training for the Rays are about having more. More confidence. More expectations. More facilities. More fans, despite moving 80 miles away. More attention from the national media. More payroll. More respect.

But with the 34-game exhibition season starting today, the biggest difference is how few questions they have to answer.

Consider a year ago, when the Rays reported to camp for the final time in St. Petersburg.

They didn't know who was going to play third base (and when Evan Longoria would be ready), or how Akinori Iwamura was going to play second base after shifting from third. They didn't know who was going to fill out the rotation after Scott Kazmir and James Shields, or how often Rocco Baldelli would be able to play rightfield.

They were just getting to know newly acquired shortstop Jason Bartlett and projected No. 3 starter Matt Garza. They had no way to know what they'd get from catcher Dioner Navarro, who had such a poor 2007 that his future was being questioned. They couldn't know for sure how B.J. Upton would handle being the full-time centerfielder, or how closer Troy Percival would make the transition from being unretired.

And now …

There's not nearly as much to talk, or write, or worry about.

"We certainly have fewer questions this spring than we've ever had before," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "And it's certainly a sign of progress."

Realistically, 23, or even 24, of the 25 spots seem set.

There is only one position truly up for grabs, the No. 5 spot in the rotation, with candidates ranging from Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann, David Price, Mitch Talbot and wild-card Carlos Hernandez, who starts today against the Reds.

There's the potential for some juggling in rightfield, but most likely it will be a Gabe of the day platoon between righty Gabe Kapler and lefty Gabe Gross.

Otherwise, the issues are small, and somewhat uneventful: Pat Burrell's transition to DH, Upton and Percival's already-progressing recoveries from surgery, Jason Isringhausen's chances to pitch his way into the bullpen.

There's so little unsettled that Friedman said the biggest issues are to keep the players challenged by giving them specific things to work on and, because of the depth they've accumulated, for team officials to keep open minds in case they want to change their minds.

"It's easy to fall prey to thinking that the 25-man roster is set in late February," he said.

When manager Joe Maddon was hired before the 2006 season and took over a team constantly in transition, he said he envisioned a day when they would show up for spring training with the roster about 90 percent set. "And, boom, here we are, in 2009," he said. "It speaks to the young guys growing up, and it speaks to the fact that we're able now to attract free agents to come here and want to play with us."

Among the benefits, Maddon said, is the chance to keep many of the returnees, who played an extra month for the first time, on a relaxed schedule. None of the starters and most of the relievers won't pitch in games until after March 5.

Plus, a large number of players can be more relaxed, more focused and spend more time working on specific skills to prepare for the season. "You can get more quality work because their mind is not all over the place, it's right here just getting ready for the season," Maddon said.

The players — at least those who have jobs — seem to like it that way.

"It's good to know so you can get past all that and focus on doing the little things Joe wants us to do to win ballgames," veteran Carl Crawford said. "You don't have to worry who's going to fill this spot and all that, you can just get ready."

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

Tampa Bay Rays have few decisions to make this spring 02/24/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 25, 2009 6:58am]

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