In 18 days, the Tampa Bay Rays will head to Port Charlotte with an unusual dilemma on their hands or, in this case, arms.
They have too many of them.
Barring any late deals before pitchers and catchers report Feb. 20, the Rays will open camp with six possibly even seven starters on the roster: James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Matt Moore and, following season-ending surgery to remove a blockage near his right rib, Alex Cobb.
The overstocked rotation continues to give the Rays options should any trade possibilities emerge as spring training nears. In fact, it seemed likely that the club would have dealt from their position of strength in the offseason to address other roster needs.
They obtained slugging DHoutfielder Luke Scott and then re-acquired power-hitting first baseman Carlos Pena without having to part with any starting arms, so it still wouldnt be surprising to see one of their hurlers be packaged in a trade if the right scenario materializes.
Obviously, baseball operations chief Andrew Friedman hasnt found a deal to his liking. But the Rays still have a clear need for reinforcements behind the plate, a veteran presence to partner with recently obtained veteran Jose Molina. The former Blue Jays standout, who brings one of the best arms in the AL and a .281 batting average in 2011, isnt an everyday player at 36. And from what weve seen, youngsters Robinson Chirinos and Jose Lobaton arent ready to carry a steady load.
So dont be surprised if theres one less starting arm and one more first-line catcher before the Rays open the 2012 season April 6, hosting the New York Yankees for a weekend series.
Heres one thing we do know now: The Rays fixture from the last time those two teams met on the final day of the 2011 regular season, Dan Johnson, wont be there.
Johnson signed Wednesday with the Chicago White Sox, bringing to a close a Rays career marked by some of the biggest homers in club history, including his epic two-out, two-strike, pinch-hit blast in the bottom of the ninth that tied the Yankees 7-7, setting up the 8-7 victory in the 11th to clinch the wild card spot.
The other hero that night, third baseman Evan Longoria, made his own news earlier this week. The man who belted two homers to beat New York including the walk-off in the bottom of the 11th was a guest on an MLB Network talk show. Longoria was asked by Kevin Millar about the below-market, long-term salary he signed in 2008 that runs through 2016. The deal pays the third-baseman some 45 million over nine years, including a comparatively low 11.5-million in 2016.
His answer served notice that he wont be a Ray beyond that year not that it should have come as any surprise.
"I can honestly say that Ive never regretted doing it, he replied. I can look at myself in the mirror and say that I made the right decision. You never know, who knows, one or two years in I mightve hurt myself and not been the player that I am today.
"Regardless of all that stuff from the outside looking in, I look at it now as, to this point Ive lived up to my contract and now, you know, my goal is to outplay it so that when it comes time for me to be a free agent, Ill be 29, 30 years old. And so thats the time when you start thinking about breaking the bank.
That gives the Rays five more seasons with Longoria before he cashes in elsewhere (can you picture him in Yankees pinstripes? Then again, its no more surreal than seeing Carl Crawford in a Red Sox uniform). Meanwhile, righthander Niemann is hoping to cash in a little bit right now, as he and the Rays head to arbitration today over his salary demands.
Niemann (11-7, 4.06 last season) wants to make 3.2 million, but the Rays are offering 2.75 million. And a three-person panel will hear arguments from representatives for both sides for three hours before ruling. History is heavily in the clubs favor: The Rays have won all five of their arbitration cases.
You wonder how such a hearing, especially if management prevails, will play on Niemanns mind as the season unfolds. Would he feel unappreciated or undervalued? And might any lingering bad feelings make him more likely to be the subject of a potential trade if one comes about? Time will tell.
For now, the Rays are preparing for camp already touted as a 2012 power by various national outlets, primarily on the strength of their pitching staff.
Theyve got James Shields coming off a career year, with a 16-12 record and 2.82 ERA and a whopping 11 complete games. Theyve got the AL Rookie of the Year in Jeremy Hellickson (13-10, 2.95) and one of the most intriguing newcomers, lefthander Matt Moore, who dazzled down the stretch and in the playoff opener. If David Price can return to his Cy Young finalist form of 2010 after a down year (12-13, 3.49), and any combination of Niemann, Davis or Cobb rises to the task, the Rays can be tough indeed on any given day.
The bullpen has been bolstered by the acquisition of hard-throwing Fernando Rodney, who could be a shut-down presence along with Kyle Farnsworth, hoping to come back from an elbow injury that hampered him late in the season, and Joel Peralta, who came on strong in the stretch.
The Rays parted ways with two of their best players from 2011, DH Johnny Damon (.261, 16 homers and great leadership skills) and first baseman Casey Kotchman (.306, 10 homers and stellar defense) but have replaced them with the power they craved. Luke Scott missed much of last year with a shoulder injury, but hit 23, 25 and 27 homers respectively in the three previous seasons. He can play outfield when his shoulder heals by late spring but is here to provide pop at DH.
The return of Pena maintains the teams high standard defensively and adds the potential of 30 homers, in spite of the likelihood of 150-plus strikeouts and a low batting average. But the 33-year-old former Rays star also brings the kind of clubhouse leadership that will help the team and also fill that void created by Damons departure.
The acquisition last week of Jeff Keppinger, a 32-year-old infielder who has played for the Mets, Royals, Reds, Astros and Giants, could solve a problem at shortstop. The Rays didnt get nearly enough offense at the position as Reid Brignac struggled with a .193 average and utility man Sean Rodriguez hit .223. Keppinger is a career .281 hitter and rarely strikes out (only 142 times in seven seasons), providing a nice lineup balance to the high totals of Pena (at least 158 in the past four seasons) and centerfield B.J. Upton (164 and 161 respectively the past two years).
If Keppinger wins the job at short, the biggest question is whether manager Joe Maddon will continue to platoon at second base with Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist. No doubt rightfielder Matt Joyce would like to be an everyday player as well, facing left-handed pitching as well as righties and not dividing time with Zobrist.
Both had excellent seasons: Zobrist hit .269 with 46 doubles, 20 homers and 91 RBI, and Joyce hit .277 with 19 homers, 32 doubles and 75 RBI. Given Maddons penchant for platooning, a Joyce-Zobrist blend in right and Zobrist-Rodriguez mix at second wouldnt be a shock. But its certainly a situation to watch: perhaps Joyces time has arrived as a full-timer in the lineup, giving a new Zobrist-Keppinger double-play combination time to develop with Rodriguez filling in capably as usual at multiple positions.
That leaves Upton anchored in center, coming off an improved season (23 homers up from 18 in 2010 and 11 in 2009) and his best batting average (.243) since hitting .273 in 2008. Desmond Jennings looks like the obvious choice to start in left, even though he tailed off to finish at .259. His speed, defense and power (10 homers in 247 at bats) could be big factors this season, with able backup from defensive wiz Sam Fuld and possibly Justin Ruggiano.
The 2012 Rays certainly should hit more home runs this season, improving on their No. 6 ranking in the AL (and ninth in the majors) with 172 last season. That was the primary offseason goal, ratcheting up the power quotient to keep up with the booming likes of the Yankees, Rangers and Red Sox (222, 210 and 203 in that order).
Whether more homers will compensate for a team that hit .244, 13th of out 14 in the AL, and sufficiently increase run production (No. 8 in the AL) remains to be seen. The Rays have proven they can reach the postseason in spite of a limited payroll; its a question of how far they can go, following back-to-back ALDS eliminations by Texas.
That picture will become clearer in time. Right now, the biggest question mark as another spring training looms: Wholl share the catching duties with Molina?
And will the Rays give up one of their proven arms to get some reinforcements behind the plate or at it?