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Tampa Bay Rays still finalizing roster as spring training winds down

FORT MYERS — After 40 days and 40 nights of spring training, there are certain things about the Rays that we now know.

J.P. Howell will be missed. B.J. Upton is primed for a big season. Sean Rodriguez can play — second base, shortstop, outfield, just about anywhere.

And we know that with opening day a week away there are still some things we don't know.

Essentially, the remaining questions involve the final two spots on the roster. With outfielder Matt Joyce unlikely to be ready, the Rays are likely to pick between Reid Brignac and Hank Blalock for their last position player. And they'll continue sorting through the four right-handers pitching for the final bullpen spot while seeking (perhaps more urgently after a rough Monday showing) outside help.

"It's going to take a couple more days, but thankfully it's not a whole lot of stuff," manager Joe Maddon said before their spring record-tying 18th win. "Hank coming in and doing as good a job as he has has made it a little bit more cloudy. The relief pitching part of it is still murky in a sense, too. We've been talking about it. … We have ideas. … It's been a very interesting race among qualified people."

A look at what's still to be decided:

Playing around

With Rodriguez playing his way onto the team, and Joyce not playing his way to the DL, there's one spot remaining.

Brignac would have been the obvious pick, providing another choice at second and overall infield depth (though Rodriguez has shown he can fill in at shortstop), plus he has options so he could be sent down, and called back up, as needed.

But Blalock, the former All-Star corner infielder in camp on a minor-league deal, has made a strong bid as an extra lefty bat, even though he'd be mostly limited to part-time DH (depending on Pat Burrell) and pinch-hit duty.

There are some contractual complications, too. Blalock can ask out of his deal starting Thursday, with the Rays having until after Friday's game to put him on the 25-man roster or let him go. And once he's on the roster, they'd likely lose him if they tried to later send him down.

So if Joyce's absence will be short term, the Rays might prefer the flexibility of keeping Brignac with the security of having Blalock (assuming he doesn't have a better offer) at Triple A, though he could still ask out later (and they'd have 48 hours to decide). If they don't plan to see Joyce soon, they just might take Blalock and see what happens.

Pitching in

There's at least a reasonable chance the final reliever isn't with the team yet, still to be acquired in a trade or signing this week. Of the four who are, Mike Ekstrom and Joaquin Benoit appear more likely choices than Dale Thayer and Heath Rollins to take the spot open for the month or so they expect to be without Howell.

Ekstrom, claimed on waivers from San Diego, has been inconsistent, impressing at times by keeping the ball down, but giving up too many hits (four more Monday, 16 in 101/3 innings, plus seven walks, with a 9.58 ERA). He has little big-league experience (28 innings) but has options, so there would be roster flexibility.

Benoit, 32, has looked good thus far in his comeback attempt after missing all of last season following shoulder surgery. But he's on a minor-league deal, and the Rays might want to see a little more, such as how he handles multiple innings and back-to-back days, before committing.

Lining up

Maddon already had some ideas about tinkering with the lineup, and Upton's strong spring forced further change, with a promotion to sixth. Maddon might abandon his usual preference for a speedy No. 9 hitter to turn over the lineup and drop the catcher to that spot.

Also to be decided, based on matchups and alternatives, is whether to play Ben Zobrist in right and Rodriguez (or Brignac) at second, or to play Zobrist at second and Gabe Kapler in right.

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

Fast facts

Order up

Subject, of course, to further thinking and tweaking, the Rays batting order might look like this:

1. Jason Bartlett, ss

2. Carl Crawford, lf

3. Ben Zobrist, rf

4. Evan Longoria, 3b

5. Carlos Peña, 1b

6. B.J. Upton, cf

7. Pat Burrell, dh

8. Sean Rodriguez, 2b

9. Dioner Navarro/Kelly Shoppach, c

Tampa Bay Rays still finalizing roster as spring training winds down 03/30/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 12:32am]

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