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What to look for this spring with the Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays are about to begin a spring training like no other they've ever had. Not only will there be several key new faces when they open camp this week, but they are in new places. Physically, with the spring base moved from St. Petersburg 80 miles south to a newly renovated complex in Port Charlotte. And philosophically, as for the first time in their dozen years they will open camp accompanied by expectations created by last season's stunning run to the World Series. "I think there's a lot of excitement going into this spring with a new state-of-the-art facility, some new players and the great competition that exists in the American League East," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "All of those things will contribute to an exciting spring leading into the season opener in Boston."

Joining the party

The Rays' biggest offseason goals were to boost their offense and add depth to their bullpen, and they seemed to accomplish both. The biggest deal was the signing of DH Pat Burrell (with Andrew Friedman), who got $16 million over two years to add his right-handed power to their left-leaning lineup.

Other new position players are OFs Gabe Kapler and Matt Joyce. The biggest change will be in the bullpen, where the Rays went for quantity and signed RHPs Joe Nelson and Lance Cormier and LHP Brian Shouse (whose one-year deal with an option should be official Monday). They selected RHP Derek Rodriguez in the Rule 5 draft. There is one alteration to the coaching staff, as Todd Greene was hired as quality assurance coach to replace Tim Bogar, who went to Boston.

Gone, but not forgotten

Five players who appeared in the World Series are no longer with the team. RHP Edwin Jackson, a 14-game winner, was traded to Detroit. The other four were allowed to become free agents and signed elsewhere: OF Rocco Baldelli, with Boston, OF/DH Cliff Floyd with San Diego, OF Eric Hinske with Pittsburgh, LHP Trever Miller with St. Louis. And TV analyst Joe Magrane left for the MLB Network, and his replacement should be named this week.

Money matters

After a hefty increase in payroll to $43 million last opening day, the Rays are making another big jump, likely past $60 million. Two arbitration cases remain, with C Dioner Navarro, scheduled for a hearing Monday and INF Willy Aybar after that. As a result, their flexibility to make any in-season moves will be limited.

Biggest battles

The Rays don't have many openings as all starting (and reserve) positions are pretty much set except in rightfield, and, unless Matt Joyce (or Fernando Perez) makes an extraordinary bid, that may just be a matter of a basic platoon between the Gabes, Kapler and Gross. They have to choose a fifth starter, though whether rookie LHP David Price is deemed ready to open the season in the big leagues will be a big part of that answer (in a similar situation last year, 3B Evan Longoria was sent to Triple A). If not, Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot will vie. The most heated competition will be in the bullpen, with a dozen legitimate candidates for seven spots. RHPs Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Chad Bradford (if not traded) and Joe Nelson, and LHPs J.P. Howell and Brian Shouse seem set, and RHP Troy Percival will join them if/when recovered from offseason back surgery. That leaves maybe one spot for Lance Cormier, Hammel, Niemann, Derek Rodriguez and others.

Among other issues to watch:

Pat Burrell's adjustment to the DH role after nine years as a full-time outfielder

Whether to move B.J. Upton to the leadoff spot and drop Akinori Iwamura as part of the overall building of the lineup

The effect of having up to five players away for the World Baseball Classic (Iwamura, J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Evan Longoria, Scott Kazmir)

The impact of playing an extra month last year (Game 5 was finished just 102 days ago) and having an extra week of spring training this year

Whether they benefit from having spring training away from home and under one roof with the minor-leaguers, or whether it becomes a subject of complaints

Trainer's report

Troy Percival isn't the only player whose health will be monitored. B.J. Upton will be limited throughout the spring and could miss the first week of the regular season recovering from left (nonthrowing) shoulder surgery. 1B Carlos Pena is recovering from Jan. 8 surgery to repair two tears in his abdominal muscle but says there is a "zero percent" chance he will miss any regular-season games. RHP Matt Garza had an offseason procedure on his right foot to repair an old injury.

Maddon's methods

Manager Joe Maddon's motivational tactics began so quietly in spring training last year that few noticed until the players started wearing those 9 = 8 T-shirts. There will be more attention this season, and perhaps more of a challenge to make sure the players aren't still wrapped up in last season's success, or satisfied with it.

What to look for this spring with the Tampa Bay Rays 02/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 7, 2009 6:46pm]
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