NORTH PORT — With a week until the season starts, the Rays are down to filling the final spots in their bullpen.
Or at least they hope so.
Starter Luis Patino looked to be fully over his shoulder discomfort in working two crisp innings in his spring debut Thursday against the Braves.
Outfielders Kevin Kiermaier and Austin Meadows appeared fine in their return to action after missing time with minor injuries.
And while All-Star catcher Mike Zunino is being shut down for a few days due to what manager Kevin Cash said was a “cranky” right shoulder, the Rays are somewhat optimistic he will be good to go April 8.
With two of their most promising prospects, Vidal Brujan and Josh Lowe, optioned to the minors, the 13 position players on the 28-man opening day appear to be set. As seemingly are the five starters.
That leaves filling the final three bullpen openings the Rays’ biggest decisions. Barring an acquisition following Pete Fairbanks’ injury, they will pick from right-handers Jason Adam, Chris Mazza and Ryan Thompson, and lefties Josh Fleming and Colin Poche.
That presumes the Rays get through the last week of spring with no issues from the seven relievers who look to be assured spots: lefties Jalen Beeks, Brooks Raley and Jeffrey Springs; right-handers JT Chargois, J.P. Feyereisen, Andrew Kittredge and Matt Wisler.
Cash said they are looking for roughly a 50-50 mix of relievers who can work one-plus inning stints and be available on consecutive days, and who can handle two-plus innings and thus need several days off.
Under that plan, Mazza, who has been stretched to as many as four innings, would seem to be a good fit for one of the spots and can be added to the roster once Fairbanks is placed on on the 60-day injured list.
Presuming the Rays want another righty, that leaves Adam and Thompson. Adam, signed March 17, has looked sharp and has big-league time over parts of four seasons. Thompson, who provides a different look with a sidearm delivery, is considered healthy after missing the final three months last season with arm issues that led to thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, but Thursday was just his second spring game. Edge? Adam.
Of the two lefties, Fleming provides more versatility and is able to handle multiple innings, even to be slated to work behind Drew Rasmussen and Patino, who figure to be on inning limits early on. Poche, out since spring 2020 after Tommy John surgery, is more of a short-stint option. Advantage? Fleming.
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Here is a look at some other things we think we know:
Not much about the order is set because it really never is with the Rays — Cash used 158 in 162 games last year — but some things seem solid. Expect to see Wander Franco start the year planted in the No. 2 spot, with Randy Arozarena batting leadoff against lefties and Brandon Lowe vs. right-handers. The Nos. 3-4 spots are likely to be manned most days by some combination of Austin Meadows, Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Diaz and Arozarena.
From there it will change based on the usual factors such as matchups with the opposing starter and relievers likely to work that day, the handedness of the Rays hitters (and how they handle same-side pitchers), Cash’s preference to have them alternate and who else is playing that day, among other factors. Figure Kiermaier and the catcher, Zunino or Francisco Mejia, near the bottom.
The Rays will take advantage of the two rule changes MLB made through May 1, expanding rosters from 26 to 28 and eliminating the cap on pitchers at 13, to bolster their pitching staff to 15 with 10 relievers.
With Patino saying he felt “super good” after Thursday’s outing, the five starters seem to be set, with Fleming acknowledging he is more likely competing for a bulk-inning role than a starting spot. If that’s the case, and with Shane Baz out due to arthroscopic elbow surgery, the rotation could line up something like this: Shane McClanahan, Rasmussen, Corey Kluber, Patino and Ryan Yarbrough.
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