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03/22/08 8:05 PM ET

Issues unresolved on Rays' roster

Bullpen, third base, utility positions likely to be set next week

ST. PETERSBURG -- While Rays manager Joe Maddon can finally cross "set starting rotation" off his to-do list, the Rays still have plenty of lingering questions going into the final week of Spring Training.

James Shields, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel are Tampa Bay's starting five; the question that remains now is who will be in the bullpen.

Although the official decision was made on Saturday, J.P. Howell said that the Rays told him two weeks ago of their plans to move the lefty to the bullpen.

"They told me early on, which is huge," Howell said. "I got my mind set so that I'm not going out there and working on things as a starter as opposed to a reliever."

Although Maddon kept Howell's name in the rotation contention all spring, Howell said that he never fully considered the idea of being a starting pitcher this season.

"I kind of enjoyed being in the bullpen a lot, so it's better. It's better right now," Howell said. "Maybe I'll go back to starting one day, but I have no beef, to say, at all with this."

Howell is now in contention primarily with right-handers Grant Balfour and Scott Dohmann, and would join Trever Miller as another coveted lefty in the bullpen.

"It's definitely good timing," Howell said of the official statement. "Relieving fits me and my mentality right now."

Despite Saturday's rotation announcement, Maddon said that the Rays are in no rush to unveil the final bullpen.

"Competitively speaking, the pitchers have really turned it up," Maddon said. "It is a good sign. Some guys have really come on, and I'm seeing things that I haven't seen in the past."

Among those who have impressed Maddon lately is Balfour, who is 1-0 with a 2.89 ERA in 9 1/3 innings of relief this spring. His past two appearances are "the best I've ever seen him," Maddon said.

"The location of the pitches have been much better," he said. "He's throwing a strike when he needs to, and he's been down [in the strike zone], and it's really nice to see."

Maddon said the tough decision in regard to the relievers probably won't come until Friday or next Saturday.

"We've seen some really good stuff, the pitching has been good and the defense has been really good," Maddon said. "We've had a pretty intense Spring Training ... guys are competing almost as if it is the regular season."

Besides the bullpen, the competition at third base between Willy Aybar and top prospect Evan Longoria has been an oft-discussed topic that will remain at least through the weekend.

"We're still really looking at that whole thing," Maddon said, noting that the decision is also likely to be made next week.

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The utility infielder role is another remaining question mark. If leading candidate Ben Zobrist is not ready for Opening Day, he will likely be placed on the 15-day disabled list and would be eligible to play April 5.

With Zobrist's availability uncertain, the Rays may have another utility infielder/outfielder on their Opening Day roster. Reid Brignac, Andy Cannizaro, and Elliot Johnson are all candidates who have emerged in the infield.

Maddon has constantly stressed that the utility man also be used as a backup outfielder, another thin position for the Rays.

Citing an instance when he was on the Angels coaching staff when the team did not finalize the roster until the final spring series, Maddon said that he is not worried about taking major decisions for the club down to the wire.

Although Maddon said that he wanted to use the upcoming week's games to make final evaluations, Saturday's rainout provided an unexpected amount of time for the club to hold a staff meeting.

With the extra time to discuss the remaining roster issues at that meeting, some of the decisions regarding the 25 men who will appear in uniform on Opening Day may come sooner than expected.

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.