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Tampa Bay Rays try to maintain stockpile of fallbacks

LAKELAND — Looking at the depth chart of Rays outfielders isn't much fun for Justin Ruggiano.

Here he is making all kinds of good impressions while tearing up the spring with a .478 average after a two-run tying homer on Sunday, reaching what he considers the peak of "readiness" as he's about to turn 28. And still, there's little chance he'll spend opening day anywhere but back at Triple-A Durham for a fourth straight season.

"It's tough," Ruggiano said. "It's tough because I feel like I'm capable of playing at a big-league level and given a good shot that I could produce pretty good numbers. But I'm aware of the talent we have here; it's very abundant."

The accumulation of assets is not accidental. The stock­piling and contingency planning is an integral part of how the Rays, with limited assets, have to operate.

"Depth," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said — not quite channeling Wall Street's Gordon Gekko — "is good."

It's good business, and it's smart baseball, because the acquisition cost can be higher, and the options fewer, if the Rays had to scramble to fill a need once the season was in progress.

"As we go through the roster-construction process in the offseason, we do so with the thought in mind that injuries are prevalent in this game and instead of encountering them and complaining about them, we try to be as proactive as we can on the front end," Friedman said.

That's why they still have Ruggiano around, and other sturdy potential fill-ins such as Fernando Perez, Elliot Johnson and the odd man out of the Reid Brignac-Matt Joyce-Sean Rodriguez competition. And that's why they bring in, or bring back, big league-caliber players such as Joe Dillon, Dan Johnson, Jeff Bennett and, most recently, Hank Blalock. And it's why they pay to have talent on their bench such as Willy Aybar, even though he won't get much chance for prime time, positioned behind iron-willed and Gold Glove-handed corner infielders Evan Longoria and Carlos Peña.

As frustrating as it may be for the second-tier players, the Rays wouldn't have it any other way. Especially when for so many years they did it another way.

From the dark early days of Brent Abernathy, Felix Escalona, Ryan Rupe and Bobby Smith, when through bad decisions and limited funds they seemingly had no other options. And even as recently as Joe Maddon's first two seasons, when they had to resort to, and in some cases use heavily, unprepared and/or unqualified players such as Jae Kuk Ryu, Josh Wilson, Ruddy Lugo, Joel Guzman and Jeff Ridgway, plus retreads such as Casey Fossum, Jae Seo and Tomas Perez.

"That was such a horrible time," Maddon said Sunday. "You knew you were bringing guys here that really shouldn't be here. And now you're sending back guys you believe do belong here. Quite a jump. Quite a difference."

In theory, for the Rays to contend they need just about all of their key Plan A players to stay healthy and contribute heavily. Then again, they won the AL East in 2008 with Carl Crawford missing 53 games and Longoria sidelined more than a month.

That's why they have Plan B's and Plan C's all around the diamond. Not that they want to ever have to use them — and, obviously, their chances of winning would be diminished if they had Ruggiano playing extensively in place of Crawford or Aybar instead of Longoria — but at least they have legitimate options. As well as premium prospects, such as outfielder Desmond Jennings and starter Jeremy Hellickson, in the pipeline.

"It's to the point now where we have players that can definitely help us," said third-base coach Tom Foley, who has been in the organization from the 1996 start. "It's come definitely full circle from where we started to now."

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

Going deep

The Rays made a concerted effort to build depth. Here's a quick look at players they could turn to if needed (players with * in contention for opening day roster):

Outfielders

Desmond Jennings

Matt Joyce*

Fernando Perez

Sean Rodriguez*

Justin Ruggiano

Infielders

Hank Blalock

Reid Brignac*

Joe Dillon

Dan Johnson

Elliot Johnson

Sean Rodriguez*

Pitchers

Winston Abreu

Jeff Bennett

Joaquin Benoit*

Jeremy Hellickson*

Carlos Hernandez

Heath Rollins

Andy Sonnanstine*

Dale Thayer

Catcher

Alvin Colina

John Jaso



FAST FACTS

Going deep

The Rays made a concerted effort to build depth. Here's a quick look at players they could turn to if needed (players with * in contention for opening day roster):

Outfielders

Desmond Jennings

Matt Joyce*

Fernando Perez

Sean Rodriguez*

Justin Ruggiano

Infielders

Hank Blalock*

Reid Brignac*

Joe Dillon

Dan Johnson*

Elliot Johnson

Sean Rodriguez*

Pitchers

Winston Abreu

Jeff Bennett

Joaquin Benoit*

Jeremy Hellickson

Carlos Hernandez

Heath Rollins

Andy Sonnanstine*

Dale Thayer

Catcher

Alvin Colina

John Jaso

Tampa Bay Rays try to maintain stockpile of fallbacks 03/14/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 16, 2010 12:01am]
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