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Tampa Bay Rays have few if any questions heading into spring training

PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays don't have a lot of questions going into this spring training. Manager Joe Maddon chatted nearly as much at Friday's media session about the bike paths and restaurants of Charlotte County as the battles for the handful of (semi-)open positions.

And of the few concerns they do have, the talk on a couple of key ones was relatively encouraging.

Closer Troy Percival reported to camp saying his recovery from Dec. 3 back surgery is going well and he "absolutely" expects to be ready opening day, though Rays officials won't be as confident until they see him pitch in exhibition games.

And starter Scott Kazmir's plans to pitch in the World Baseball Classic may be foiled as the Rays filed paperwork to block his participation based on his injury-shortened and playoffs-extended 2008 season.

Otherwise, the conversation was as new as the setting.

Maddon talked about how the expectations and pressure from last season's success are good things, and falling short of the championship "whets the appetite even more," topics that never really came up before at this event. Executive vice president Andrew Friedman detailed how, with their offseason acquisitions and accrued depth, the spring roster "is about as optimal as it gets," a significant advance from the typical discussion of how holes might be filled. Realistically, the fifth starter's spot and shared playing time in rightfield might be the only openings.

Percival's status is important because although the Rays signed three free agent relievers and took another in the Rule 5 draft, they don't have another proven closer.

"Obviously if Percy's well, that is his job," Maddon said, "so we just have to see this all the way through and see where he is by the end of this camp."

Percival, 39, saved 28 games last season but missed much of the second half with back and related leg problems, and did not pitch in the postseason. He said the difference is remarkable after 5½ hours of surgery to remove two "burst" herniated discs and having his spine shave to relieve an "entrapped" nerve.

"I feel better now than I did at any point last year," Percival said. "My back was killing me last year. I still have back pain, but I don't have the things that go with it. My legs last year were really numb, they were shaking all the time. I have all the strength back in my legs. That's probably the biggest bonus that I've noticed."

He has thrown twice off the mound and, though he gets "really stiff for about two hours" afterward, said he should be only a week or two behind the other pitchers and plans to pitch in five to six exhibitions, just a couple fewer than normal. He acknowledged that, after "a month on the couch" recovering, his first priority is to get himself into shape, which should take about three weeks. For what it's worth, Friedman said, "He looked great."

The Rays have concerns about any of their players participating in the Classic, but Friedman acknowledged they are "heightened" about Kazmir, who had issues with injury and inconsistency last season and is scheduled to be brought along slowly this spring.

"As part of the process, teams are allowed/encouraged to voice any concerns, and I think for us it's just being cautious," Friedman said. "I don't know what's going to happen yet, but whatever the outcome is we'll stand behind him and support him."

Kazmir said pitching for Team USA is "big for me," and he would be disappointed if ruled ineligible, but "at the same time you understand where they are coming from." A decision from the three-person panel is expected in the next few days.

The Rays effectively quashed the participation of reliever Grant Balfour, who said he was eager to pitch for the Australian team but agreed not to when the Rays made it clear "they definitely preferred" he not because it would disrupt his offseason program.

Reliever J.P. Howell said Friday that he was planning to pitch for Team USA, but he would throw a few times next week before making a final decision. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura is playing for Japan and won't report to Rays camp until the tournament is over, which could be late March; third baseman Evan Longoria is a possibility for Team USA.

Also:

• Sunday's first spring workout will start at 1 p.m., after physicals. Admission is free; the Charlotte Sports Park parking lot will open at 12:30.

• The Rays will host an open house at 10 a.m. Monday, allowing fans to tour the ballpark and watch the squad work out on the stadium field. After the ribbon cutting for the team store, there will be an autograph session with some players.

Tampa Bay Rays have few if any questions heading into spring training 02/13/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 14, 2009 12:27am]

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