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What few questions remain for the Tampa Bay Rays

Veteran closer Jason Isringhausen, who’s coming off elbow surgery, has been surprisingly impressive in Rays camp and is making a push to join the bullpen.

Associated Press

Veteran closer Jason Isringhausen, who’s coming off elbow surgery, has been surprisingly impressive in Rays camp and is making a push to join the bullpen.

BRADENTON — Izzy has the Rays in a bit of a tizzy.

With opening day less than two weeks away, the Rays are preparing to make final decisions on their roster, and one of the more interesting, most discussed and certainly least expected is what to do with reliever Jason Isringhausen.

That move affects the makeup of the rest of the bullpen, and the Rays still have some lingering issues with the fifth starter and the batting order. And until B.J. Upton is ready, they need to figure out the alignment of the outfield and final spot on the roster.

So after 5½ weeks of spring training, the hard work remains.

"It's kind of unusual that you probably have 90 percent of your team done, but the last 10 percent may be the most difficult decisions you've ever had to make here," manager Joe Maddon said. "I don't know the answers yet."

What they're looking at:

The Izzy tizzy

Isringhausen, 36, signed to a minor-league contract after the start of camp, has been impressive enough that the Rays are suddenly talking a lot about him. A proven closer (293 saves) and great competitor, he has looked healthy and relatively sharp in camp and could provide great depth and insurance should Troy Percival end up sidelined again.

But there are at least two potential problems. One, Isringhausen has had injury issues of his own, including elbow surgery in September. Two, it's going to be really tough, if everyone stays healthy, to fit him into the bullpen.

To make room, the Rays most likely would have to trade or otherwise dispense with either Jason Hammel or Jeff Niemann, whoever isn't the fifth starter, as both are out of options. It would also leave the Rays without a true long reliever.

That isn't necessarily a huge issue, as Joe Nelson and/or J.P. Howell could work multiple innings, but it's not ideal, especially long-term, and could be problematic if a starter is knocked out early and they have to use 3-4 relievers to finish a blowout, straining the pen for the next day.

Isringhausen, who would have to be added to the 40-man roster and gets a $750,000 salary plus incentives, isn't likely to go to Triple A, certainly not for long, so the Rays won't get to buy much time as they decide how much they really want him around. If they really want to stall, they could carry 13 pitchers until Upton returns.

Batting order

When Upton comes off the DL, on or around April 13, he's likely to go to the top of the order, with Akinori Iwamura, expected in camp Wednesday after the WBC, dropping probably to the No. 8 spot. There's still some talk about whether to hit the rightfielders (Gabe Gross or Gabe Kapler) sixth and catcher Dioner Navarro seventh, or the other way around.

Until Upton gets back, Jason Bartlett might bat leadoff against lefties and fill-in centerfielder Ben Zobrist against righties.

Eventually, it likely will look like this:

1. B.J. Upton, cf

2. Carl Crawford, lf

3. Evan Longoria, 3b

4. Carlos Peña, 1b

5. Pat Burrell, dh

6. Gabe Gross/Gabe Kapler, rf

7. Dioner Navarro, c

8. Akinori Iwamura, 2b

9. Jason Bartlett, ss

Fifth starter

Since Hammel emerged as the frontrunner, he had a so-so outing last week and a poor one Monday, including five walks in four innings. In six appearances, he has a 4.95 ERA and allowed 23 hits in 20 innings.

Niemann had been impressive until a rough outing Friday in Dunedin (allowing nine runs in two-thirds of an inning after one in his first 11), and, with a 2-1, 7.71 mark in five games, gets another shot Wednesday that suddenly could be more interesting. One reason Hammel might be the starter is the Rays think Niemann's future could be as a late-inning reliever.

Maddon reiterated after Monday's game, "We have not made up our minds yet." Whoever wins the No. 5 job might just be a temp anyway, as David Price (or Wade Davis) is coming at some point this season.

Outfield platoons

Matt Joyce's late start due to right leg tendinitis eliminated any chance of changing the plan to have Kapler and Gross platoon in rightfield. DH Pat Burrell might get out there occasionally as well.

Zobrist looks to get most of the time in center until Upton returns, though he could platoon with Kapler, or Justin Ruggiano if he's on the team.

Bench

With Zobrist, Willy Aybar, the Gross/Kapler nonstarter and catcher Shawn Riggans set, all that's open is the spot created by Upton's absence.

Ruggiano seems most likely, since he can play all three outfield spots. The Rays will also think about utility infielder Adam Kennedy but might not want to add him to the 40-man roster for what could amount to a week's duty.

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

Roster review

A look at who's in and who's still in the mix to make the Rays 25-man opening day roster:

Starting pitchers (5):

On the team (4): James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine

In the running: Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann, David Price

What they'll likely do: Hammel

What we'd do: Price

Relief pitchers (7):

On the team (6): Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell, Joe Nelson, Troy Percival, Brian Shouse, Dan Wheeler

In the running: Lance Cormier, Jason Hammel, Jason Isringhausen, Jeff Niemann

On the DL: Chad Bradford

What they'll likely do: Niemann

What we'd do: Isringhausen

Infielders (6 or 7)

On the team (6): Willy Aybar, Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, Evan Longoria, Carlos Peña, Ben Zobrist

In the running: Morgan Ensberg, Adam Kennedy

What they'll likely do: Stick with six

What we'd do: Same

Catchers (2):

On the team (2): Dioner Navarro, Shawn Riggans

Outfielders (4 or 5)

On the team (4): Pat Burrell, Carl Crawford, Gabe Gross, Gabe Kapler

In the running: Matt Joyce, Justin Ruggiano

On the DL (2): Fernando Perez, B.J. Upton

What they'll likely do: Ruggiano, until Upton returns

What we'd do: Same

Marc Topkin, Times staff writer

Fast facts

What few questions remain for the Tampa Bay Rays 03/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 24, 2009 9:44am]

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