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Shortstop battle leads spring decisions yet to be reached by Tampa Bay Rays

James Shields is the Rays’ opening day starter.
James Shields is the Rays’ opening day starter.
Published Mar. 18, 2012

BRADENTON — The good thing about spring training is that a guy like Reid Brignac can impress his bosses by trying the kind of things they ask him to, like working better at-bats, taking walks, dropping bunts, running the bases more aggressively.

"He's done a nice job," manager Joe Maddon said.

The bad thing about spring training is that the Rays don't exactly know what it means.

A month into camp, halfway through their exhibition season, the Rays don't appear any closer to settling the competition for the starting shortstop spot between Brignac, who is trying to reclaim the job he was handed last spring and lost, and Sean Rodriguez, who wants to keep it after taking over in July.

The final two weeks of exhibitions should be — well, have to be — more telling as the Rays make this decision, and others.

In this case, they have to see how Brignac — hitting .389 with a .450 on-base percentage — handles facing frontline pitchers who work deeper, and more like they would in real games, in terms of pitch selection and location.

They won't be sure, though, what they'll get when it counts.

Still, a decision has to be made whether to give Brignac the job back (with Rodriguez returning to a utility role) or have them share time, or to send Brignac back to the minors, allowing them to keep switch-hitting utility man Elliot Johnson, who is out of options and otherwise seems headed for waivers. Though they want to keep Johnson, the platoon seems most likely.

Here is a look at three other decisions they're pondering:

Rotation

The Rays are saying the right thing in deference to veterans Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann, but as long as rookie Matt Moore doesn't have any further injury issues, he's going to be in the rotation.

That leaves Davis and Niemann competing for the final spot, with the other headed to the bullpen.

It's an interesting decision, likely with a slim margin and postponed as long as possible. Niemann has had a better spring (though not that much better after Friday's outing), but the Rays know Davis is a slow starter and don't see any larger problem than a lack of command.

Primarily, the choice comes down to whom they consider the better starter to begin the season. Of lesser import, who can help more and adjust more easily to the bullpen.

The perception is that Davis would be better in the pen and that staying on routine would benefit Niemann and keep him healthy, though it's not universal, with talk that Niemann could be a legit relief weapon. Also in play is that the "loser" will end up starting at some point anyway and have to transition back.

At this point, it seems Niemann's job to lose.

The 'other' catcher

With veteran Jose Molina targeted for 80-90 starts, the Rays need more than a typical once-a-week backup, and there isn't yet a great choice.

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Robinson Chirinos is out after sustaining a concussion. Stephen Vogt has hit well but doesn't have enough experience behind the plate to be a legit option.

Chris Gimenez, signed to a minor-league deal just before camp, is a decent receiver (and can play other positions) but hasn't shown much with the bat, which was his problem with Cleveland and Seattle (career .171 average).

That leaves Jose Lobaton, who, despite an overall unimpressive camp, appears the frontrunner by default. Plus, he has the added "benefit" of being out of options, meaning the Rays would risk losing him on waivers if they wanted to send him to the minors.

At some point, other options may have to be explored, either 40-year-old free agent Pudge Rodriguez (who is being courted by Kansas City) or a trade/waiver wire pickup, though in a slim market.

Bullpen

With five slots filled (Kyle Farnsworth, J.P. Howell, Jake McGee, Joel Peralta, Fernando Rodney) and the other starter taking a sixth, there is one spot left for four candidates.

A key question is role, whether the Rays want a potential long man (if the plan is for the "other" starter to stay sharp with regular work) or a complementary piece.

Burke Badenhop is appealing as a ground-ball specialist, and the likely leading choice, but wouldn't provide much length.

Brandon Gomes, the incumbent after a solid rookie season, can handle multiple innings and has a toughness Maddon likes.

Cesar Ramos has pitched his way into the conversation, offering the benefit of a third left-hander (with Howell and McGee).

Newcomer Josh Lueke is the longest shot.

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