Spring training hardly went according to plan for the Rays as a series of minor and odd injuries delayed some of their key decisions and threatened to impact their goal of getting the season off to a good start.
While third baseman Evan Longoria and left-handers Matt Moore and David Price recovered to make up for lost time, and designated hitter Luke Scott appeared recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, lingering injuries to shortstop Reid Brignac and outfielders Desmond Jennings and B.J. Upton could affect their plans.
Starting pitching is by far the strength of the team, and the depth is evident as it appears that Wade Davis, a double-digit winner the last two seasons, is headed to the bullpen as Jeff Niemann will win the battle to retain his spot in the rotation as they made room for rookie phenom Matt Moore.
After an impressive reconstruction of the bullpen following a massive post-2010 free-agent exodus, the Rays added depth (and late-game experience) by signing Fernando Rodney to complement returnees Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta, giving them three potential end-of-game options.
The Rays will have depth all the way into Triple-A, though the March 22 arrest of prospect Matt Bush on reported DUI-related charges could limit that.
The biggest impact of the injuries was in setting the lineup after an off-season in which the Rays met their primary goal of bolstering their offense without diminishing their defense or dealing from their depth of starting pitching.
That was accomplished by signing free agent first baseman Carlos Pena, infielder Jeff Keppinger, who will play against left-handers, and Scott. The Rays have looked at several combinations, including the unorthodox alignment with Pena, a traditional cleanup hitter, in the No. 2 spot to take advantage of his high on-base percentage.
Also at issue is the overall readiness of the hitters, given how many regular players missed at-bats due to injuries and the limited schedules of Longoria, Scott, Upton, Jennings and Brignac.
Overall, the primary concerns are at shortstop and catcher. The Rays were looking at a potential platoon of Brignac and Sean Rodriguez, although Brignac might be deemed not ready because of the plantar fascia problem in his right foot.
Veteran catcher Jose Molina, a career backup, is going to be limited to 80-to-90 starts behind the plate so it appears the other half of the playing time will go to Jose Lobaton, although essentially by default as no other candidates emerged. A late-spring pickup remains a possibility.
Longoria, who missed more than a week because of a bruised right hand, seems poised to carry over his strong second half and make a run at an MVP award.
Starters James Shields and David Price both have top three Cy Young finishes on their resumes and are poised for further success. Moore is considered the favorite to succeed Jeremy Hellickson as the Rookie of the Year.
|Plantar fascia issues may keep SS Reid Brignac off of the Opening Day roster and have impacted the competition between he and Sean Rodriguez for the shortstop job.|
--SS Reid Brignac's availability to start the season is in question because of a painful and awkward plantar fascia problem with his right foot. Brignac hopes to play through the pain and return for the final week of exhibitions, and then the Rays will have to decide if he is too limited that way and if they would be better off with Sean Rodriguez and Elliot Johnson handling the position.
--RHPs Burke Badenhop and Brandon Gomes were competing for the final spot in the bullpen. Badenhop, acquired from Miami, is a ground-ball specialist whom the Rays are also considering for multiple-inning duty. Gomes was impressive as a rookie last season and repeatedly earns praise from manager Joe Maddon for his toughness on the mound.
--CF B.J. Upton's return from back and abdomen soreness stemming from a March 14 outfield collision with Desmond Jennings took longer than expected and could impact his readiness to start the season. As of March 22, Upton had not been back on the field in a major-league game, and had gotten only three at-bats in a minor-league game.
--LF Desmond Jennings was the latest Ray to join the line in the trainer's room, sidelined at least several days due to a sore throwing shoulder. Both Jennings and the Rays said it was a cautionary move to prevent future problems and not the result of a specific injury.
--RHP Matt Bush, a top relief prospect, put his future with the team in jeopardy Thursday when he was arrested on a series of DUI-related charges after fleeing the scene of a serious accident in Port Charlotte, Fla., the team's spring training base. Bush, 26, had battled alcohol issues earlier in his career and had earned praise from the Rays for how he had handled himself. He was likely to open the season at Triple-A Durham with a chance to reach the majors this season.
--SS Tim Beckham is expected to be the everyday starter at Triple-A Durham, but he was used at second base during his stint in big-league camp with the idea that if he shows he ready offensively the versatility could speed his path to the majors. "I feel close hitting, I feel close at short, I feel close everywhere," he said.
BY THE NUMBERS: 16.11 -- Average plate appearances per strikeout by INF Jeff Keppinger, second best among active players.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You have no idea. For me personally, it's quite a moment. I'm not usually star-struck but I have been today. ... I've been waiting for this moment to happen for many, many years." -- Rays manager Joe Maddon, on meeting childhood idol Joe Namath at the March 20 spring game.