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02/01/08 10:00 AM ET

Optimism, competition to bloom

Tough decisions to be made in spring as Rays expect to win

ST. PETERSBURG -- If you are a Rays fan and are not excited about Spring Training, you really should be. For the first time in team history, the Rays camp will feature a team that expects to win as it prepares for the regular season rather than a team holding an open tryout for a season with no promise.

Heading into Spring Training, the Rays have solid performers at most positions as well as familiar faces fans should be able to identify with.

Returning from last year's team are Carl Crawford in left field, B.J. Upton in center field, Carlos Pena at first base, Akinori Iwamura -- who changes from third to second base -- and Dioner Navarro behind the plate.

Top prospect Evan Longoria will likely take over at third, Jason Bartlett -- who came to the Rays via trade with the Twins -- takes over at shortstop, and Rocco Baldelli, Jonny Gomes and free-agent acquisition Cliff Floyd will form a three-way rotation for the right field and designated hitter spots.

The starting staff will be anchored by Scott Kazmir, James Shields and newcomer Matt Garza, who came over in the Twins deal, while everyone in the bullpen will move down a notch with the arrival of veteran closer Troy Percival.

Yes, there are question marks, but nothing resembling those from years past.

Foremost among the questions is Longoria. Will he be the team's Opening Day third baseman? Or will the Rays send their top prospect back to Triple-A Durham for a little more seasoning?

"We're still keeping an open mind [in regard to Longoria]," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Obviously this young man has done everything right, and he's going to be the third baseman at some point this year. We just don't know if it's going to be Opening Day or not. He's a wonderful young man, and he's going to be very good. We just don't know when that's going to be."

Next: Can Iwamura make a smooth transition to second?

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"With Aki, there is certainly a risk element, shifting a guy from third base to second base," said Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations. "But the idea when we signed him was to play third base until the time Evan Longoria was ready. We didn't know if it would be one year, two years, three years, but we felt like Aki had the actions to play second base. He has the willingness and the work ethic.

"While it's a risk, we feel pretty confident that not only will he be able to do it, but he'll be pretty good at it as well."

Meanwhile, the Rays have no choice but to have an open competition to fill out the remaining two slots in the starting rotation. Right-handers Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine are the favorites heading into camp, but they will face stiff competition from a solid group of right-handers in Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot, along with left-hander J.P. Howell.

"I'm really not a big proponent of evaluating players during Spring Training, but we have some close calls [with whom] you have to rely upon that," Maddon said. "We've got Evan at third base, our starters going for two spots minimum. This Spring Training is going to be really competitive, really interesting, and we're going to have to pay attention. I mean not that we haven't in the past, but there are some really tough calls to be made this spring, in a good way."

Despite having spots that call for competition, Maddon likes where the Rays will find themselves at the beginning of Spring Training, particularly in contrast to his first two springs at the helm of the Rays.

"It's going to be so nice when you come to Spring Training and it's like, 'This is my shortstop, he's playing first, these are my starters,'" Maddon said. "Right now you know Bartlett's going to be at short, Aki at second, Pena at first, C.C., B.J., you know Navvy -- you know all this stuff on the field. You know Kaz, you know Shields, you know Garza -- that's quite a cry from where we've come over the last couple of years. That part of it is very nice."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.