Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 4/4/12
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. Spring training hardly went according to the script for the Tampa Bay Rays, especially against the backdrop of all those glowing World Series projections that greeted the club at the start of camp. Instead, one of the AL Easts lesser but promising powers, the Toronto Blue Jays, played the starring role with baseballs best record at 24-7. The Rays? Not so much. There was the unrelenting wave of injuries almost from the outset and continuing through this week, with the announcement that closer Kyle Farnsworth will be heading to the 15-day disabled list with a recurrence of elbow soreness. There were the frequently quiet bats with the Rays ranking last among all 32 MLB teams this spring with an average of .231 and second-to-last in runs scored with 114. And there was that rocky showing in the standings with a record of 10-16, with the oddity of six ties. Of course, its dangerous to read too much into won-loss records during spring training either at the top of the exhibition standings or near the bottom. Fortunately for the Rays, nothing counts until Friday, when they open the 2012 season against the potent division rival New York Yankees the team they caught from behind 8-7 in Game 162 last September to clinch the AL Wild Card berth. More telling are individual spring-training trends. So should there be concern that first baseman Carlos Pena, making his triumphant return to the Rays after a season with the Cubs, hit only .107 (12-for-56) with 23 strikeouts and only one homer? Will those struggles carry over or will Pena get back in the long-ball groove? Well find out soon enough. From a sheer physical perspective, the spring took its toll on the Rays as they prepare for the new campaign, hoping to reach the playoffs for the fourth time in five years under manager Joe Maddon. Centerfielder B.J. Upton, still experiencing back stiffness from his collision with left fielder Desmond Jennings three weeks ago, will miss the first 15 days of the season on the DL. Farnsworths absence is an initial setback for the bullpen. And theres the loss of backup outfielder and resident speedster Sam Fuld, who will miss the four or five months of play following wrist surgery on Tuesday. That said, the Rays seemed to play markedly better during the final week of Grapefruit League action. Key players such as Evan Longoria, who missed 10 days early in camp after his hand was struck by a practice-game pitch, regained his power stroke. Jennings, bothered recently by a sore throwing shoulder, returned to health and showed off his own power with three homers in one game last week. And new DH Luke Scott, a prized free agent pickup in the off-season, starting hitting more consistently in recent games. The last week was huge for us, to all get out there together, Longoria said Wednesday. And you learn a lot, when youre all out there on the field together. So it was definitely a huge, growing week for us, and a step in the right direction for the season. Meanwhile, Tampa Bays vaunted pitching staff began gelling as well not just rotation ace James Shields, who enjoyed a standout spring on the heels of his career year in 2011, but strong end-of-spring efforts from the rest of the starting five: David Price, AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, hotshot rookie lefthander Matt Moore and Jeff Niemann, who edged out bullpen-bound Wade Davis for the final spot. The adversity the Rays have faced in the past month is nothing compared to the obstacles that marked the start of the 2011 season. They lost free agent slugger Manny Ramirez to retirement and Longoria to an oblique strain out of the box, en route to the 0-6 and 1-8 hole before digging themselves out and eventually earning the AL Wild Card berth with a torrid September, a Red Sox collapse and a storybook season-finale. Not surprisingly, their immediate goal is to avoid a poor start now something that could prove particularly damaging given the difficulty of their early schedule (the opening weekend series against the Yankees, followed by a daunting road swing with three games in Detroit, four in Boston and three in Toronto). Theres no denying that, we want to get off to a strong start, said Maddon. Its very important. We proved that we can do it another way last year like we did. However, its not the easy or the right way to do it. We prefer getting off to a good start. Our schedule is not easy, but thats okay, because I really believe it brings out the best in us when we play the better teams. As usual, Maddon will have plenty of moving parts with the lineup most notably at shortstop, where Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac and even Elliot Johnson could divide the role. Heres a look at how the team shapes up with Opening Day closing in: RIGHTFIELD: The Rays are in good shape here. It should be another time-share with Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce, with likely more of Zobrist while Upton is out of the lineup. The switch-hitting ultra-utility man is an important cog in the Tampa Bay engine, coming off a .269 season with 46 doubles, six triples and 20 homers. Expect to see Zobrist getting ample work at second as usual this season. Joyce is hoping to build on All-Star season in which he .277 with 19 homers and 75 RBI. What he wants is more chances to prove he can hit lefties and he may well get it this season, playing both in right and at least for the short term left. Defensively, both players more than hold their own. CENTERFIELD: This is Upton territory when healthy, but for now, Jennings is leasing the property. Judging how well he played left after his July call-up, the Rays will be in good hands, though Jennings recently sore shoulder might affect his arm strength, at least initially. Jennings is an exciting player to watch in the field, on the bases and at the plate. Hes the quintessential leadoff hitter and has power as well. After he red-hot start last summer, Jennings tailed off and finished at .259 with 10 homers in 247 at bats. But he got on another tear in the playoffs and has followed with an excellent spring (.327 and a .531 slugging percentage). Upton missed out on about half his normal number of at bats, so hell likely spend some time in Durham during his rehab to get back on track. He still hits for a low average (.243 and .231 respectively in the last two years) but Upton is still a key man in the lineup, having hit 23 homers with 27 doubles and four triples last year, while also stealing 36 bases. During his absence, its possible that Zobrist and Johnson could also fill in a bit in center. LEFTFIELD: Until Jennings returns, Joyce should see ample action in left. But newly called-up rookie utility man Stephen Vogt could play there, too. Vogt is capable of playing multiple spots, including first and catcher, where he could enter games late to replace Jose Molina or Jose Lobaton. Vogt runs well, according to Maddon, and hes shown he can hit. During the spring, he was 10-for-31 with three doubles and a homer, and he has a .305 lifetime average in five minor-league seasons. SHORSTOP: Though the aforementioned triumvirate of Rodriguez, Brignac and Johnson will all play short, the starting job belongs now to Rodriguez, Maddon said Wednesday. He came on strong late last season after moving over from second, and impressed Maddon throughout the spring with his strong defense. Youve seen it already this camp how well hes played shortstop, he said. Ive always felt that Reid was the best defensive shortstop that we had in the organization and would still probably have to give the edge overall to him. But Seans really closed the gap on him. How much either player can contribute offensively remains to be seen. Rodriguez hit .223 last year, but enjoyed a decent spring at .260. Brignac plunged to .193 in 2011, though battled through a painful foot condition (plantar fascia) this spring to hit .333. Both players fared better offensively in 2010 (.251 for Rodriguez; Brignac .256 as a rookie) and some improved work at the plate would certainly make a difference for the Rays this season. Johnson, a switch-hitter, hit .194 last season and .169 in spring training, so dont expect much impact, aside from some occasional power bursts. THIRD BASE: The last thing Longoria wanted after missing the first month of the season last year was to get hurt this spring. But thats what happened when a Matt Bush fastball nailed him in an intra-squad game at the start of camp (who knew that it would be the least of Bushs troubles? Three weeks later, hed be in jail charged with DWI in Port Charlotte, leaving a motorcyclist in a coma and slapped with 1-million bail after leaving the scene of the accident). Longoria, however, has slowly regained his feel at the plate. He closed camp hitting .283 with three doubles and four homers. I felt really good over the past week, he said. The productivity has been there. But really thats not what Ive been looking at. Ive been looking at the quality of at bats and how my body is feeling going seven and eight innings. And all of that is positive. Longoria made some uncharacteristic errors defensively this spring, but he remains one of the best fielding third basemen in the game. SECOND BASE: It will be interesting to see what kind of contribution newly acquired Jeff Keppinger will make. Conventional wisdom is that hell split time with Zobrist and start against lefties. He hit .290 facing southpaws last year and is a career .324 hitter lifetime against them. Keppinger is also one of the toughest players in baseball to strike out, ranking No. 2 among active major leaguers with only one K in every 16.1 at bats. FIRST BASE: Penas return has been widely acclaimed by teammates and many Rays fans. Hes a natural team leader, a top-tier defender and a player capable of hitting 30 homers. But the Rays all-time homerun has hit .225, .196 and .227 in three consecutive seasons. Maddon attributes Penas low average, in part, to the heavy shift defenses employ against him. In spite of Carlos batting average, and Im not even worried about that because hes always skewed by the defenses, I think he looks good, the skipper said. If Pena hits his normal range of homers (28 in 2010 and 2011, 39 in 2009 before CC Sabathia broke two of his fingers with a misplaced fastball on Labor Day) then hell be the power player the Rays need at the position. CATCHER: Molina gives the Rays something they havent had in a long time, a catcher who can play good defense and also hit. Hes coming off a .281 season with Toronto and possesses a great arm. But Molina also scored high marks for his work with pitchers this spring, especially youngsters like Hellickson and Moore. The only down side is that Molina hasnt caught 100 games in a season since 2008 (only 55, 57 and 52 the past three seasons). That means the Rays will need a solid contribution for Lobaton, whose Rays debut was derailed by injury soon after his call-up last year. Hes gotten rave review in Durham, and had a good spring at the plate (14-for-50, .281), including 4-for-8 in his last two games. Vogt could wind up spotting both catchers as a late-game fill-in. DH: All eyes are on Luke Scott, the former Orioles slugger who was brought in to replace Johnny Damon and increase the power quotient. Scotts 2011 season was interrupted by a shoulder injury, but prior to that the lefty hitter totaled 23, 25 and 27 homers respectively. Hes still not healthy enough to throw from the outfield, but could be by May or June. For now, Scotts job is to give the Rays more pop at the plate. Though he hit only .216 in Grapefruit League play, he did come on toward the end five hits in five of his last six games (including .333 over a five-game stretch). STARTING PITCHING: The Rays are well-known for their abundance of talented arms. Four of the starting five Shields, Price, Hellickson and Niemann won in double digits last year. And judging from his spectacular showing in limited action, Moore is more than capable of that this season. The staff, as always, is the backbone of the Rays and the reason behind so many lofty predictions for the club this season. BULLPEN: Farnsworths setback is a downer for what looks like an improved unit. The sore elbow bothered him down the stretch and in the post-season, and it has flared up again. The Rays need him back in good health, following his standout season with 25 saves in 31 opportunities. The up side is that the pen now boasts an experienced closer in Fernando Rodney (who saved 37 of 38 games with Detroit in 2008 and gives the Rays another option, along with versatile Joel Peralta. J.P. Howell hasnt been himself since his shoulder surgery that wiped out his 2010 season and limited him in 2011. But hes feeling better than he has since prior to the injury and could contribute in a big way in a set-up role. Starter Wade Davis will likely see his share of long relief stints in his new bullpen assignment. And Burke Badenhop from the Marlins gives the Rays a proven specialist in inducing groundballs. If Farnsworth returns quickly at full strength, this could be an outstanding group. OVERALL: The Rays formula for success has been built around top-flight pitching and defense, and its the same now. The Rays finished second-to-last in the AL in hitting last year at .244 and their offensive struggles this spring suggest they wont be a juggernaut this year, either. We know that defense and pitching wins, said Howell. We can get a bunch of home run hitter who cant play defense and that would be brutal. Id rather have guys who can swing it pretty decent, but play amazing defense and have a good attitude. That wins championships and thats what were doing this year. Were not going to win games 9-7. Its going to be 4-1 or 3-2 or whatever. Itll be a low-scoring game, and thats what were strongest in. Their task wont be easy in the power-packed AL East, where they Yankees have improved their pitching and remain offensively dangerous, and the Red Sox are looking revitalized under new manager Bobby Valentine. Toronto could be in the mix as well under second-year manager John Farrell. The Rays could find themselves in another formidable hole if they dont start off strong, and it wont be any easier missing several key pieces in Upton and Farnsworth. I really believe were going to be able to cover, Maddon said. Weve done it in the past. Last year, for instance, we missed Longo the entire first month of the season. If you go back to 2008, it was a long and distinguished group of people we were missing that entire season. We can overcome that stuff. Thats not my concern, because during the course of the year, youre going to have bad things happen. But how you approach that and deal with it as a group sets you apart. I think we normally handle it pretty well. And I really anticipate our guys doing the same thing this time around, too. ROSTER FINALIZED: The Rays announced their 25-man roster late Wednesday afternoon. Pitchers (12): RH Burke Badenhop, RH Wade Davis, RH Kyle Farnsworth, RH Jeremy Hellickson, LH J.P. Howell, LH Jake McGee, LH Matt Moore, RH Jeff Niemann, RH Joel Peralta, LH David Price, RH Fernando Rodney, RH James Shields; Catchers (2): Jose Lobaton, Jose Molina; Infielders (7): Reid Brignac, Elliot Johnson, Jeff Keppinger, Evan Longoria, Carlos Pea, Sean Rodriguez, Luke Scott; Outfielders (4): Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, Stephen Vogt, Ben Zobrist. Officially, the club placed C Robinson Chirinos (concussion) and OF Upton (lower back soreness) on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to March 26. OF Fuld (right wrist surgery) was placed on the 15-day DL effective Wednesday (though he will be out much of the season). Farnsworth is expected to go to the DL by Friday, buying the Rays more time to figure out who will replace him temporarily.
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