03/23/10 4:52 PM ET
Roster questions surround Rays
Versatility of Zobrist, Rodriguez gives club plenty of options
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
When Tampa Bay opened the doors at the Charlotte Sports Complex in mid-February, the only real question seemed to be who would claim the final relief spot. Now there are legitimate questions at second, right field, the fifth starter and the bullpen.
Ben Zobrist, who entered camp holding the answers at second and right, now seems destined to start the season alternating between the two positions rather than settling into one. What changed?
For starters, Zobrist likes to play different positions. Next, Matt Joyce injured his right elbow while throwing during a drill. The injury does not seem to have affected his hitting as he's been used as the DH, but he has not been playing in the field. So the question is out there: Will Joyce be ready for the season?
"There's always that chance [he won't be ready]," manager Joe Maddon said. "He has thrown ... that's a good sign. Is he going to progress to a point where he can throw to a base? I don't know yet. There is progress. I just don't know how quick it's going to be or that it is. But there is progress."
Joyce had been earmarked to platoon with Gabe Kapler, so who grabs the extra outfield spot if Joyce doesn't make the team? Justin Ruggiano, who has had a tremendous camp, might just beat the odds and be the fourth outfielder. Or would the Rays keep just three outfielders since Zobrist can play outfield?
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"That's possible," Maddon said.
Meanwhile, Sean Rodriguez has had a remarkable spring playing many positions, with an eye on playing second base during the regular season when Zobrist plays right field. But Maddon has not yet declared whether Rodriguez has won the job over Reid Brignac and Elliot Johnson. If Tampa Bay decides to keep just three outfielders (not counting Zobrist), that would open up the possibility of keeping both Rodriguez and either Brignac or Johnson, who is out of options.
"If Rodriguez were to make the team, you also have five outfielders," Maddon said. "That's the beauty of Zobrist and Rodriguez. Those guys, this time of year, putting together a team or making a decision, their versatility is really endless. They play everywhere, and they play everywhere well. So if you're short in one area, number wise, they pick you up."
Maddon also threw another name into the puzzle that might complicate things: Hank Blalock.
"I think Blalock coming in and doing as well as he has, has raised questions I didn't have in the beginning," Maddon said.
The veteran slugger might be a nice bench player for the Rays to have to back up at first base and DH.
Finally, the fact J.P. Howell will begin the season on the disabled list opened up many different possibilities for the bullpen. For example, once Maddon announces who his No. 5 starter will be between Andy Sonnanstine and Wade Davis, there's a chance the loser will head to the bullpen. Maddon told reporters he'll name the fifth starter on Wednesday, so that should add some clarity to the situation.
Other possibilities also exist for the bullpen, such as the club going outside the organization to find help, or perhaps the final piece or pieces to the bullpen can be found among Joaquin Benoit, Dale Thayer or Carlos Hernandez.
A lot of questions still need to be answered and time is running out.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.