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04/27/08 2:01 PM ET

Decisions loom with Kazmir's return

Maddon tight-lipped as to who will get bumped from rotation

ST. PETERSBURG -- Scott Kazmir, who is coming back from a left elbow strain, is expected to make his final rehab start Monday night for Triple-A Durham. The left-hander will pitch five innings or 85 pitches, and if all goes well, he'll make his first start of the season for the Rays next weekend.

With Kazmir returning, somebody will have to go down. Normally, such a task would not be a difficult undertaking for the Rays given the state of past pitching staffs. However, this season is different. The starting staff and the bullpen have both looked strong in the early going, particularly the bullpen, which entered Sunday's contest against the Red Sox with a 2.26 ERA -- earmarking the group as the best bullpen in the Major Leagues.

The club could go in many directions, but there is not a clear choice.

"We've already been meeting [to discuss the situation]," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We've been talking about it all along. When it comes right down to that moment, we'll make that decision. We'll play different scenarios mentally in regard to what we want to do. But, to me, you always talk about it, but you have to wait until the very end of the week to see how it all plays out."

Currently, James Shields is the only lock to maintain his position in the starting rotation. The rest of the rotation, which includes Matt Garza, Jason Hammel, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine, could all be in play.

Garza or Sonnanstine could be optioned back to Triple-A Durham, but Jackson and Hammel are out of options, so if anything is done with either it would likely involve a shift to the bullpen. Otherwise they would have to clear waivers to remain in the organization.

"That potentially could happen, one of the starters goes to the bullpen," Maddon said. "Who would be best suited for that would be a consideration, also. And, again, we've talked about all the different [options] with that, in regard to how that could come to be."

If one of the starters were to be shifted to the bullpen, a member of the bullpen would have to be either optioned or designated for assignment.

Kurt Birkins will be optioned back to Triple-A Durham once Al Reyes returns on Thursday, making Scott Dohmann, who does not have options, and J.P. Howell, who does have options, possible candidates to be moved to make room for one of the starters if that scenario develops.

"There's no doubt in my mind, you would loose the guys without options if you were attempting to send them down," Maddon said. "You would lose these guys. They're pitching at a very high level and they would be very attractive to a lot of people."

Maddon said they will not consider a six-man rotation.

"It's tough, [and] we actually have some very tough decisions to make based on people who are very qualified," Maddon said. "In the past, honestly, it's been we're just trying to fill a hole once in a while. So this is a tough one. This is real tough. I just want to let it play [out]."

The decision needs to be made once Kazmir is activated either May 3 or May 4 in Boston. Maddon has not yet decided which day Kazmir will start.

"We told Kaz once he comes back [to the team after Monday night's start] we'll finally nail down the date," Maddon said. "So when he goes and pitches in Durham and then he comes to us, [we'll decide]. ... If I had to weigh in one direction, I would weigh toward Sunday right now."

And May 4 would delay a tough decision until the last possible moment.

"However this shakes this coming week, it's going to shake," Maddon said. "And it could change at any moment also. We just feel like all these guys are qualified. We're just going to have to make a tough decision."

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