Tampa Bay Rays live in the present with final cuts

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays still feel Hank Blalock might help them later. But they thought Reid Brignac would help them more now, possibly as their opening day second baseman, and that's why they kept him instead.

Similarly, they chose Mike Ekstrom for the final spot in their bullpen and sent veteran Joaquin Benoit to Triple A, setting their 25-man opening roster while wrapping up a record (and major-league best) 20-win exhibition season Friday with a 4-2 victory over the Mets at Tropicana Field.

Blalock will have until Sunday morning to find a job elsewhere in the big leagues with an agreement, following a change of mind, he'll go to Triple-A Durham if he doesn't while retaining an out clause.

Brignac isn't going anywhere — for now anyway — rewarded for his tremendous spring showing in which he hit .350 with 18 RBIs after an impressive voluntary winter ball gig.

"Reid is the one that really surprised us in some ways," manager Joe Maddon said. "Reid's improvement at the plate really has been attractive. I think he's come a long way in a month."

Brignac, 24, said he felt more confident and comfortable, having eliminated some of the uppercut from his left-handed swing while making a smooth transition from his natural shortstop position to second.

"I definitely feel like I've improved from last year to this year already," Brignac said. "But it's not the end. It's just the beginning, so I'm looking forward to the next few months, the next few years."

He'll get a chance right away as part of what Maddon framed as an unusual three-way platoon at second with Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez, whose place on the team was made official Friday, having impressed the Rays with his overall play (including at shortstop), .460 average and overall field awareness.

"He's a consummate baseball player," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.

In short, think of the arrangement this way: Against most right-handed pitchers, Brignac or Rodriguez will play second (based on complex matchup and swing analysis) and Zobrist will be in right. Against most lefties, Zobrist will play second and Gabe Kapler right. Rodriguez could get time in the outfield.

Maddon said the opportunity to use Brignac at second — in essence replacing injured Matt Joyce, the lefty hitter who would have played right (with Zobrist at second) — was the prime tipping point in the competition with Blalock, who is limited to first, third and designated hitter, positions at which the Rays have regulars and already a capable backup in Willy Aybar.

But Maddon insisted Blalock could be of significant value as the season goes on, given the possibility of injury and presumably potential DH duty if Pat Burrell doesn't rebound.

"We don't want to lose him," Maddon said. "Things happen around here."

Blalock, 29, said Wednesday that he wouldn't go to the minors but changed his mind because he wants to keep playing, saying he can "be a very productive big-league player for a long time."

If Blalock goes to Durham, he'll have the right to ask out at any time with the Rays having 48 hours to put him on the big-league roster or let him go.

Ekstrom, a 26-year-old right-hander unexpectedly claimed on waivers from San Diego in February, was chosen over Benoit because of how he pitched, showing improved fastball command after a shaky spring start (still a 7.43 ERA), and how often he can pitch, such as on back-to-back days.

"It's crazy how stuff works out some times," Ekstrom said. "Just happy it worked out for me this time."

Benoit, 32, threw well at times, hitting 96 mph with his fastball. But the Rays want him to work regularly at Durham to complete recovery from the shoulder surgery that forced him to miss the 2009 season.

"It's almost like he's going to go for another month of spring training," Maddon said.

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

Tampa Bay Rays live in the present with final cuts 04/03/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 3, 2010 12:38am]

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