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Tampa Bay Rays seek subtle clues during spring training

PORT CHARLOTTE — With nearly half their roster turned over and up to a half-dozen spots, plus shares of playing time at a handful of others, open for competition, Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon have lots to look for as the 33-game exhibition season opens today.

And very little will be obvious.

While acknowledging the boost their majors-best 20-8-2 spring record gave them starting last season, the top Rays aren't as concerned about specific individual results as some of the subtle things the players do along the way.

"It's the process in which these guys go about getting their work in," Friedman said. "It doesn't have anything to do with spring training ERA or batting average."

Instead, it's physical things such as how a runner reacts on the bases or how a fielder breaks toward a ball; how quickly a pitcher can make adjustments or how often he can throw a strike when needed; how a hitter reacts in certain counts or to a type of pitch.

And mental things such as thought process, instincts and demeanor, especially in tight situations.

"A lot of the things we're talking about is the stuff the average fan would never even consider," Maddon said.

With that in mind, here are the main areas they will be watching:

Bullpen

With more than a dozen candidates for the three open seats besides Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Adam Russell and Andy Sonnanstine, this is where most of the action — and attention — will be.

The Rays aren't looking only for the three best pitchers, but the three who best complement the other four to provide the options and different looks they want; making relevant repertoire (fastball or breaking balls), style (ground ball or fly ball) and effectiveness against left- and right-handers.

Even more subtle, the tightness of a breaking ball, differential of a changeup, ability to elevate or sink a pitch when needed.

Some will be very obvious.

"Strike-throwing is the biggest thing with the relief pitchers," Maddon said. "Control and command, you're looking for the ability to throw a strike when they want to."

First base

Dan Johnson is considered the starter — more for what he does with the bat than glove — but he will have some competition for playing time.

Casey Kotchman, the former Seminole High star, is in camp on a minor-league deal. Kotchman has a near-golden touch defensively. And if he convinces the Rays he is — as they've heard — regaining his past offensive form after hitting .217 last season (and .241 since July 2008), he could work his way onto the team and into the lineup.

Ben Zobrist isn't that comfortable defensively at first, but the Rays are planning for the switch-hitter to play there against at least some left-handed starters. And the more comfortable he gets, the more he could end up playing.

Batting order

With at least partial platoons at five positions and Maddon's proclivity for tinkering to optimizing matchups, there isn't going to be much of a set order anyway.

But there needs to be a foundation to work from. And the lineup planned for today provides a peek at what they are thinking initially. John Jaso remains in the leadoff spot (against right-handers) with Johnny Damon sliding into the No . 2 slot and Manny Ramirez in the cleanup spot to provide protection for Evan Longoria rather than in front of him to get on base.

From there, they have to decide where to slot the next group of Matt Joyce, B.J. Upton, Zobrist and Johnson.

Also to be determined are the shares of playing time as they are planning at least partial platoons at five positions (catcher, first, second, short and rightfield).

A couple of players will end up facing same-side pitchers each night, so expect to see some experimenting now (Reid Brig­nac and Joyce against lefties, Sean Rodriguez against righties) as part of the determination of what to do later.

Bench

With nine somewhat versatile position players (Brignac, Damon, Johnson, Joyce, Longoria, Ramirez, Rodriguez, Upton, Zobrist) and two catchers (Kelly Shoppach, Jaso) expected to be on the team, there are basically two spots open.

One will be a reserve infielder with Elliot Johnson the favorite over veteran Felipe Lopez (who is on a minor-league deal). The other will be an outfielder with Sam Fuld the leading candidate.

But this decision will be made as much for how the reserves fit onto the roster as how they play.

For example, Johnson's ability to play the outfield, specifically centerfield, could be an edge over Lopez if the Rays believe they need depth there (especially as a switch-hitter). It also could work to Kotchman's advantage as the Rays might be more open to keeping him than Fuld if they know Johnson could, and would be available, to fill in.

"We want to make sure we feel like we're as covered as we can be in all the different areas," Friedman said.

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

Regular-season tickets

After several presales, the Rays officially put individual game tickets for the regular season on sale at 10 this morning exclusively through raysbaseball.com. Starting at 10 a.m. Monday, tickets will be available at all outlets, including Ticketmaster, the Tropicana Field box office and the team's Tampa store.

Spring training guide

Expanded looks at the bay area's three teams — Blue Jays, Phillies and Yankees — and quick looks at Florida's other teams along with the schedules for all. 4-5C

Tampa Bay Rays seek subtle clues during spring training 02/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 25, 2011 10:37pm]
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