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Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon considers tinkering with his lineup

PORT CHARLOTTE — Most of the discussion at the Rays' pre-spring training media session Thursday was as expected.

The interrelated position battles at second base and rightfield will be the most interesting story lines. Major focal points will be getting off to a better start and tightening up the defense. They feel confident, especially with the addition of closer Rafael Soriano. They have the talent to be competitive in the American League East.

And then there was this:

Manager Joe Maddon is thinking of shuffling the middle of the batting order, potentially moving Ben Zobrist into the No. 3 spot, dropping Evan Longoria to fourth and Carlos Peña to fifth.

"I honestly am not decided there because I do believe all three are interchangeable," Maddon said. "There will probably be a lot of discussion with the guys; just seeing where they are at by the end of the camp. I feel comfortable with all of them 3-4-5."

Longoria hit third in 142 of his 153 starts with a .274 average and .865 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) and spoke often of relishing the responsibility of the slot typically filled by a team's best hitter.

But Maddon is intrigued by the idea of having the switch-hitting Zobrist, and his team-best .405 on-base percentage, bat ahead of his top home run hitters.

Another option is to keep Longoria third with Zobrist fourth and Peña — who struck out a team-high 163 times om 2009 — fifth. Most times last season, Longoria was third and Peña fourth with Zobrist moved around.

"I want to look at these three guys," Maddon said. "I'm not committed or convicted on that yet."

Maddon has firmer ideas on the rest of the batting order: Jason Bartlett, who excelled in the leadoff role (.303 with a .398 on-base percentage), and Carl Crawford at the top; B.J. Upton and Pat Burrell, in either order, likely sixth and seventh; the catcher (Dioner Navarro or Kelly Shoppach) and rightfielder/second baseman who isn't Zobrist (Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez or Reid Brignac) at the bottom.

Overall, the Rays open camp today feeling good about themselves and their chances. Among the more interesting issues:

• The decisions on rightfield and second base will be interrelated and, thus, complicated. Because the Rays are comfortable with Zobrist at either spot, it's essentially an unconventional three-way battle among Joyce in right and Rodriguez and Brignac at second. And they will consider a number of factors.

"Obviously (this) is going to be something that we spend a lot of time thinking through," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.

• Though Shoppach and Navarro would seem to be competing for playing time, the Rays view them as complementary and say both will be counted on to contribute.

"We're not looking at that really as a competition as much as having two guys that we feel like are very capable of helping us win a game," Friedman said.

• Maddon will stress getting the season off to a better start (avoiding the hole last season's 9-14 April created) and finishing games stronger (having lost 18 times when tied or leading after seven innings). Also, to tighten up their defense, which lacked at some key times last season.

"The emphasis really has to go back to fundamentals," Maddon said. "For us to get back where we had been, which I fully expect that we will and can do, we have to do better at the little things."

• Though several key players, topped by Crawford and Peña, are in the final year of their contracts and principal owner Stuart Sternberg said the payroll is heading down next season, Maddon doesn't think it will be a distraction.

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

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon considers tinkering with his lineup 02/18/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 1:55pm]
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