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Versatile Hinske stays in Rays outfield mix

Rays manager Joe Maddon, left, says Eric Hinske, the 2002 rookie of the year with Toronto, has performed well on defense in the outfield and likes the offense his left-handed bat provides.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Rays manager Joe Maddon, left, says Eric Hinske, the 2002 rookie of the year with Toronto, has performed well on defense in the outfield and likes the offense his left-handed bat provides.

TAMPA — Manager Joe Maddon said by the beginning of next week, the club should have a pretty good idea, if not the final answers, for position battles such as third base, utility man, rightfield and the bullpen.

If the Rays don't look outside for another outfielder, Eric Hinske may be moving to the forefront as an in-house candidate.

Hinske, 30, signed a minor-league contract last month and was thought be positioning himself to compete for a utility spot (having experience at both corner infield and outfield positions). Hinske, who started in leftfield and rightfield the past two games, has worked with coach George Hendrick all spring and hasn't "done anything bad" in his more than 30 innings in the outfield, Maddon said.

But when it comes to competing with fellow nonroster invitees John Rodriguez and Jon Weber, it's Hinske's left-handed bat that could make the difference.

Maddon said Hinske may not be the fastest of the three, but the manager indicated earlier this week that he would "probably in a sense be willing to accept something a little bit less defensively if we're going to get possibly a lot more offense."

Hinske, who was the AL rookie of the year with Toronto in 2002 (24 homers, 84 RBI), has reached double digits in home runs five times in his six-year big-league career. This spring, Hinske has been one of the Rays' most consistent hitters (.342 average), with Weber at .211 and Rodriguez .167.

"We need to score runs," Maddon said. "Your corner outfielder in the big leagues really has to pound the ball a bit. He's capable. He's done it in the past."

SONNANSTINE STRONG: Maddon said RHP Andy Sonnanstine made a strong case for joining the rotation with Friday night's performance against the Yankees regulars (five scoreless innings, scattering three hits, though the Rays lost 2-1).

Sonnanstine is one of five pitchers competing for three spots, with Maddon saying the rotation could be finalized by Sunday.

"Very, very impressive," Maddon said of Sonnanstine's start.

UPTON, Iwamura OKAY: Maddon said CF B.J. Upton and 2B Akinori Iwamura, who left Thursday's game early with injuries, will likely return to the lineup Sunday. Upton (left triceps bruise), who was hit just above his left elbow with a pitch in the first inning, said everything is fine, he's just a little sore. Iwamura said his back felt a little stiff, but if Friday's game against the Yankees had been a regular-season game, "I'd (play)."

INJURY REPORT: Ace LHP Scott Kazmir (left elbow strain) played catch with head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield but didn't complete a throwing session, making it eight days since he last threw from the mound. But Maddon said there's progress being made. … Backup catching candidate Shawn Riggans got a few at-bats at the minor-league complex and is scheduled to start today against the Pirates, along with 3B Willy Aybar (left hamstring soreness). … INF Andy Cannizaro (sore back) could play today and INF Ben Zobrist (broken left thumb) will get re-evaluated through X-rays on Monday.

BACKUP PLAN: Maddon was pleased with how RF Jonny Gomes looked Thursday in his first spring stint in centerfield. With Zobrist unavailable and Upton out for at least today, Gomes could be an option for backup centerfielder. Maddon said he wants to see Gomes in center a couple of more times. "I'm curious to see what it looks like," Maddon said. "Jon runs better than people realize."

MISCELLANY: RHP James Shields started Friday afternoon for Triple-A Durham against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre at the minor-league complex, performing well: seven innings, one hit, one unearned run, two walks, seven strikeouts.

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Versatile Hinske stays in Rays outfield mix 03/21/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 23, 2008 10:22pm]
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