PORT CHARLOTTE — Halfway through spring training, Rays officials continue to spout optimism, confident that what they are seeing on the field validates their thoughts going into camp about assembling a team that is healthy enough, deep enough and, most important, talented enough to compete for a playoff berth.
What concerns they do have, they're confident will be worked out in the remaining 21 days — three-plus of which will be disrupted by the trip to Cuba — until the season opener.
But based on what some people watching and some around the Rays are seeing and saying, here are some questions they might want to ask:
• As adamant as they are that SS Brad Miller will work through his throwing issues — be they mental or physical or both — under the tutelage of coach Tom Foley, what is Plan B at shortstop?
Tim Beckham on a full-time, or official platoon, basis? The intriguing Taylor Motter? Another shot for Nick Franklin, who is ticketed for Triple A? Would they get radical and consider sure-handed prospect Daniel Robertson, the 22-year-old who hasn't played above Double A? Would they look outside?
• Given Miller's errant tosses and the overall premium they put on defense, would they be better served keeping the much tidier fielding James Loney at first and instead moving Logan Morrison?
Loney has been without a position since the Rays acquired Morrison and Steve Pearce to play first and Corey Dickerson to DH. They seem set on trading him, willing to eat at least some of his $8 million salary, and, if they can't find a partner, conceivably even releasing him.
Morrison makes half as much ($4.2 million) and, though he has not looked smooth at first, offers some versatility in being able to play the outfield and has a much more potent bat, though he hit .225 last season with 15 homers and a .685 on-base plus slugging percentage. That Loney (who hit .280/4/.680) reported in great shape and has played well furthers the question, as both are free agents at the end of the year. Plus adding Dickerson's lefty power bat could reduce the need for Morrison.
• Or would they be better off trading OF Desmond Jennings or Brandon Guyer to clear the roster logjam? Doing so could allow Loney to play first and open up DH at-bats for Morrison and Pearce with Dickerson going to leftfield, where he played most of the time in Colorado. Plus, they might be able to get a useful piece in return, whereas Loney/Morrison might just be a dump. Or, a further reach, would they consider sending down RF Steven Souza Jr. to make space there?
• Are they really comfortable with the bullpen options? Or, with a 40-man roster spot to burn by placing RHP Alex Cobb on the 60-day DL, are they looking, as some say, for a late spring waiver wire pickup to add some high-leverage experience or higher-end stuff? Or at moving versatile RHP Erasmo Ramirez to the pen, given the limited need for a fifth starter in April?
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• Who is the "third" catcher? If Curt Casali and Rene Rivera make the team now, as it looks, are the Rays willing to pay Hank Conger $1.5 million to play at Triple A? If not, would they be comfortable with Luke Maile, and his 15 games of big-league experience, being a foul tip away from semi-frontline duty? Or do they need to find a veteran on a minor-league deal?
RAYS RUMBLINGS: Roster size for the March 22 exhibition in Cuba has been increased from 28 to 32-33. That depth protection could be handy if field conditions are a concern or the competition gets too testy. … Expect most of 40-man rostered players to go, plus Cuban-born OF Dayron Varona. LHP Matt Moore is lined up to start. … The idea of MLB bringing "special guests" to Cuba makes sense, but Derek Jeter? He might steal just a little spotlight from the Rays. At least Jose Cardenal, one of the others, was a Devil Rays coach in 2000-01. … Odds on RHP Chris Archer winning the AL Cy Young are 6-1 per the Bovada online site, same as Seattle's Felix Hernandez, Cleveland's Corey Kluber and Chicago's Chris Sale. The favorite is Boston's David Price, the ex-Ray, at 4-1. … Listen for regular twice-morning updates (7:30, 11:30) starting Monday on 620-AM.