ST. PETERSBURG — When the Rays opened spring training in mid-February at Disney, they felt there were only a few questions about the makeup of their roster.
Now 4 ½ weeks, one large Tyler Glasnow oblique strain and a few other small injuries later, they will get down to figuring out those answers over the next 11 days.
And they seem pretty pleased with the options they have.
“I think we’re in a position on both sides of the ball, where the way camp has played out, we’ve had more players we’d feel okay with breaking with us than we will have spots,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said.
“Which is what you want.”
Things can still happen, good and bad, until the final 26-man rosters have to be filed at noon on March 30, the day of their season opener against Detroit. Injuries, breakthrough performances and trade opportunities in both directions can impact the decision-making process in granular and grand ways.
But heading into the final stretch of spring, here’s what we think they’re thinking:
Joining the bench
With 11 of the 13 position player spots filled, the competition for the other two seemed to be between Jonathan Aranda, Vidal Brujan, Josh Lowe and Luke Raley.
But it’s starting to look like no contest, with lefty swingers Lowe and Raley emerging as the seemingly obvious choices.
Lowe, a multi-talented outfielder, has appeared much more relaxed and confident than last spring, when he made the roster but struggled through April and was sent down. The Rays’ hope is that he is ready a year later to display the all-around impact he has had at Triple-A.
Raley has shown the power the Rays knew he had, with four homers entering Saturday. But as big a factor, and more surprising, is his ability to handle playing first base, giving them an option to right-handed hitter Yandy Diaz, and erasing any advantage Aranda, the more experienced first baseman, had, or the versatility Brujan offers with speed and the ability to play anywhere.
Plus, Raley is out of options and the Rays don’t like to let assets get away.
The five spot
The most convoluted decision will be filling Glasnow’s spot in the rotation. The three primary candidates are lefty Josh Fleming and right-handers Yonny Chirinos and Luis Patino, who have each had a rough outing, but presented well overall.
Figuring out the answer, however, requires further clarification of this question: Are the Rays looking for one guy to step in until Glasnow returns sometime in May, or seeking to mix and match based on opponents and schedule?
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The latter seems more likely.
“If somebody takes that job and really secures it, I think that’s a great outcome for us competitively,” Neander said. “But as much as we’ve ever been at this point in camp, we’re just continuing to be in an evaluation mode on the guys that are competing for that spot.
“And I don’t think that’s something that will suddenly be fixed once we make a decision at the end of camp. The competition for those opportunities will be ongoing.”
Or maybe the Rays will turn the spot into a job share, calling up a starter when they need one and carrying an extra reliever on the in-between days. That could help given the taxing nature of their initial schedule which, after two off-days in the first week, has them playing 52 games in 55 days.
For starters, Chirinos may be the choice.
Getting some relief
Returnee Shawn Armstrong’s undefined neck issue created a second opening in the eight-man bullpen.
Right-hander Calvin Faucher has drawn repeated raves — “His stuff was stupid good,” manager Kevin Cash said Friday — and seems likely to have one spot.
There are around a half-dozen candidates for the other, ranging from rookie Kevin Kelly (a Rule 5 pick from Cleveland), to 10-year veteran Heath Hembree, and several relievers with big-league time in between, such as Trevor Kelley and Kyle Crick. Another option could be to keep one of the starters as a long man.
Given that the Rays won’t want to give Kelly back, he seems the likely choice.
With Glasnow and Armstrong headed to the injured list, the lone current question is if infielder Taylor Walls, who due to an oblique issue didn’t get his first at-bats until Thursday, can be ready by March 30. Cash said that without setbacks he can be. If not, non-roster options Charlie Culberson, Daniel Robertson and Tristan Gray could be in play.
The three key players who missed considerable time last year due to significant injuries — outfielder Manuel Margot and infielders Wander Franco and Brandon Lowe — have all looked good to this point.
Though Franco and Lowe have gotten more attention, Cash said the strong spring by Margot — who missed two months following a serious right knee injury in June — is important.
“That’s a great sign,” Cash said. “Maybe as big a sign as — we talk a lot about B. Lowe, we talk a lot about a full season of Wander — we missed Manny a lot. So if he’s healthy and that knee is good to go, which it certainly appears … he’s worked really, really hard.”
Marc Topkin’s projected 26-man roster:
Starters (in order): Shane McClanahan, Zach Eflin, Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen, Yonny Chirinos
Relievers: Jason Adam, Jalen Beeks, Garrett Cleavinger, Pete Fairbanks, Calvin Faucher, Kevin Kelly, Colin Poche, Ryan Thompson
Catchers: Christian Bethancourt, Francisco Mejia
Infielders: Yandy Diaz, Wander Franco, Brandon Lowe, Isaac Paredes, Taylor Walls
Outfielders: Randy Arozarena, Josh Lowe, Manuel Margot, Luke Raley, Harold Ramirez, Jose Siri
Injured list: Shawn Armstrong, Shane Baz, Tyler Glasnow, Andrew Kittredge
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