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Tampa Bay Rays say B.J. Upton is likely to miss first week of regular season

PORT CHARLOTTE — The swelling in B.J. Upton's left hand will subside in a day or two, but between the new bone bruise and his continued recovery from left shoulder surgery, Rays manager Joe Maddon made it sound all but official Sunday that Upton will miss at least the first week of the regular season.

As a result, it appears the starting centerfielder on opening day April 6 in Boston will be Ben Zobrist. And there's a chance veteran infielder Adam Kennedy will be on the bench rather than outfielder Justin Ruggiano.

With Upton expected to be sidelined at least a couple of days after being hit by a pitch Saturday from Boston minor-leaguer Stephen Fife and the Rays already taking a cautious approach, Maddon ruled him out for the opener and said: "It kind of leads us to believe that he's not going to make that first road trip. I don't know what's going to happen after that."

With the Rays opening in Boston then going to Baltimore, the April 13 home opener has been an unofficial target for Upton's return, though Maddon said that's "not necessarily" the end date.

"It's not a huge issue for me," Maddon said. "I want him to be healthy and well and ready, and I want him to have the kind of year that he's capable of because he is healthy. I want to do nothing to jeopardize the latter part of the season by being a little bit too quick now."

Upton seems resigned to the later return now, too.

"It's looking more that way," Upton, 24, said Sunday morning. "Obviously I was pushing it, but I think they're definitely going to want to take it a lot slower now."

Executive vice president Andrew Friedman said no decisions have been made.

Zobrist has emerged as the leading candidate to replace Upton, more likely in a platoon with right-handed hitting Gabe Kapler or Ruggiano but possibly full time.

"Zobrist being a switch-hitter, he's a platoon player himself," Maddon said. "It would depend on how much you want to ride Zobrist on a daily basis."

Zobrist, 27, played five games in center last season, his first since his freshman year at Eureka (Ill.) High, but he said he has become increasingly comfortable there.

"Comfortable enough to where when I see myself playing centerfield, I don't have a second thought about it," Zobrist said.

Maddon is still experimenting with the combinations, such as whether he'd prefer Kapler or Ruggiano in center if both are on the team and whether to also use Zobrist in rightfield.

The problem with starting Zobrist is center is that he is also the backup shortstop, which could limit some of Maddon's in-game flexibility and maneuvering.

One way around that would be to carry Kennedy, the former Angels and Cardinals starting second baseman, who is trying to win a utility job, rather than Ruggiano. "That is possible," Maddon said.

Kennedy, 33, played shortstop regularly until getting to the big leagues in 1999, started one game there in 2007, and said he was confident he could handle filling in: "I'm up for whatever." Kennedy will play short in a game this week. How comfortable the Rays are with him there could factor into the decision, as does roster management since he would have to be added to the 40-man roster.

Another factor is Maddon's apparent willingness to use DH Pat Burrell in rightfield if needed, which also could get Willy Aybar into the lineup at DH.

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

fast facts



Center stage

With B.J. Upton likely out at least the first week of the season, the Rays have five others with experience in centerfield:

Gabe Kapler

444 games

Gabe Gross

56

Carl Crawford

54

Justin Ruggiano

8

Ben Zobrist

5

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Tampa Bay Rays say B.J. Upton is likely to miss first week of regular season 03/22/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 23, 2009 7:49am]

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