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Three Tampa Bay Rays players to watch this spring

When B.J. Upton returns to the lineup after shoulder surgery, he could be moved into the leadoff spot.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

When B.J. Upton returns to the lineup after shoulder surgery, he could be moved into the leadoff spot.

Here are three key people to watch over the next seven weeks, and where they may be at the end.

PORT CHARLOTTE

There will be a lot to see at the Rays' new southern spring home that officially opens with today's first workout. There are the outfield boardwalk and tiki bar as the signature sights of the $28 million extreme makeover of the Charlotte Sports Park. New DH Pat Burrell's 125-pound English bulldog, Elvis. Wedding rings on the fingers of manager Joe Maddon, executive VP Andrew Friedman, pitcher Matt Garza and a few others. James Shields' monster truck (which will fit right in locally). Gabe Kapler's muscles. Burrell's, too. Fernando Perez's hair. Minor-league pitching coordinator Dick Bosman's latest hot-rod. Alligators in the stadium lakes. Evan Longoria's guest list. Scott Kazmir's (attempted) beard. 19-year-old Tim Beckham's grin. Troy Percival's workout routine. There will be some interesting stuff on the field, too. 4C

Troy Percival

The 39-year-old closer showed up Friday morning in full roar, saying he "absolutely" will be ready for opening day after Dec. 3 back surgery. The Rays, of course, expected nothing less. "It's definitely part of his mentality," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said, "and in a lot of respects it's a good thing." But the Rays have to see for themselves how he is, how he pitches, how he moves around, how he feels afterward, how quickly he can recover. And it likely will take until late March before they know when/if he'll be ready. In the interim, they'll have to prepare both ways. Manager Joe Maddon acknowledges "it's always optimal" to have that one guy at the end of the game but insists they are "kind of comfortable" with the committee approach used when Percival was out much of the second half and in October last year. The likely remaining group, with Chad Bradford out until June, has fewer than 65 career saves, 38 by Dan Wheeler (in 57 chances). "We'll wait and see on Percy's health," Maddon said, "and then determine the rest of the roles as we work our way through it." Much like the David Price situation, the Rays are likely to be conservative, with an eye on the full season. And given Percival's $4.45-million salary, they'll want to maximize what they get out of him.

Where we think he'll be: Close but not ready, he'll open the season on the DL.

David Price

Rays officials are saying there will be a four-man competition among Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann, David Price and Mitch Talbot for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. But that, essentially, is the second of two decisions. Primary will be whether the Rays decide Price, at 23, with only 20 professional starts and 1291/3 innings (including 11/3 pretty good ones in Game 7 of the ALCS), is ready for regular major-league duty. Price, of course, believes he is.

"I don't want to think I'm going to be anywhere else," he said. "I'm not coming into camp thinking, 'Okay, I'm going to go to Triple A for a couple months and just work on stuff there.' Absolutely not. I don't ever want to play another day in the minor leagues in my life."

But listening to Rays officials talk about the importance of maintaining depth, how it's not as important who's on the roster at the beginning of the season as at the end, how they already are assessing him and preparing to fight the urge to make the decision just on what they see in the spring, it seems he will have to do a lot of convincing. (And have to throw a lot of changeups, proving he has a reliable complement to his fastball and slider.) Executive vice president Andrew Friedman acknowledged that the decision with Price is different.

"With David, obviously, development is king," he said. "It's something we do need to factor in because we're focused on building an organization, not just the '09 Rays."

Also a factor, given how the Rays relish roster flexibility: Hammel and Niemann are out of options, meaning they can't be sent to the minors without being offered (and likely claimed) on waivers, while Price (and Talbot) can, allowing all to stay in the organization.

Where we think he'll be: Pitching opening day — at Durham, against Norfolk.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com

B.J. Upton

All indications so far are that Upton is making a strong recovery from Nov. 11 surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left (nonthrowing) shoulder. But thus far the centerfielder has hit only off a tee, with hopes to be cleared today to start swinging at soft tosses.

The Rays are going to be cautious — sense a theme for this spring? Feel the Caution! — and make sure not to rush him now only to lose him later in the season.

Upton, 24, already has said he may miss the season-opening road trip to Boston and Baltimore because the cold weather could make him achy, and the Rays seem to be planning accordingly.

Even the signing of free agent Gabe Kapler seemed to be part of their contingency, as they now have him and Fernando Perez as alternatives if Upton isn't ready or can't play every day when he returns.

"We're just going to let him get well at his own pace," manager Joe Maddon said. "Obviously he's a pretty important part of us, now and in the future. We know he's going to be very impactful this season."

Once Upton gets back, the Rays have to decide where to hit him.

There have been whispers that, with the addition of right-handed power hitter Pat Burrell, Maddon may restructure the batting order, moving Upton to the leadoff spot (where his power and speed would be a dynamic combo) and dropping Akinori Iwamura toward the bottom.

Where we think he'll be: Upton returns mid April and quickly takes over at the top of the order.

fast facts

For openers

The Rays open spring training today with a 1 p.m. workout (after player physicals) at the Charlotte Sports Park, 2300 El Jobean Road in Port Charlotte. Driving time from the Tampa Bay area is 1½-2 hours. The suggested route: take I-75 south to Exit 179 (North Port/Port Charlotte), turn right (west) on Toledo Blade Road, go about 6½ miles (crossing U.S. 41) to El Jobean Road, turn right, go about 2 miles; stadium complex will be on your left. Workouts usually last 2½-3 hours. Admission and parking are free, the stadium lot opens at 12:30. Subsequent workouts will start around 9:30 a.m.

Three Tampa Bay Rays players to watch this spring 02/14/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 15, 2009 4:59pm]

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