03/30/09 1:43 PM ET
Decisions looming on fifth spots
Rays have options when it comes to final slot for starter, outfielder
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
"We have some really good problems, man," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann are battling to become the fifth starter and each turned up their performance a notch in their last outing.
Hammel pitched Saturday against the Pirates and showed well while tossing five scoreless innings. Niemann countered with six scoreless innings in a Triple-A game Monday.
Both pitchers are out of options, meaning the Rays must find a spot for both or risk having another team claim them when the final 25-man roster is set.
Initially, Maddon planned to remain in Port Charlotte, Fla., on Monday to watch Niemann pitch, but he had to travel to Fort Myers to talk to Morgan Ensberg, who was released. Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and pitching coach Jim Hickey remained behind to watch Niemann.
"We're still not ready [to make a decision] yet," Maddon said. "We're still working on that. It's just not ready yet."
The winner of the competition will claim the fifth spot, and there's a chance the loser will head to the bullpen. A trade remains a possibility.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the Padres have shown interest in Niemann, but the Rays asked about prospects Simon Castro, Wynn Pelzer, Juedy Valdez and Nick Schmidt in return -- each of whom the Padres deemed too steep a price to make a deal.
Maddon did say they plan to go right through the rotation, No. 1-5, to start the season rather than delaying the fifth starter's first start due to off-days.
"We don't like to skip guys, even though it's early on," Maddon said. "We like to play all five guys if we can. And that way as the year progresses, you take advantage of that off-day and use all five. We don't like to just skip all five. So [the fifth starter will] pitch right from his first start."
In the field, the Rays plan to break camp with five outfielders. If B.J. Upton were to start the season with the team, this question would already be answered. But Upton will miss the first road trip, unless the Rays experience a dramatic change of mind, meaning their outfield will include Carl Crawford, Gabe Gross, Gabe Kapler, Pat Burrell and an as-yet-to-be-named fifth outfielder.
Candidates to warm the open spot until Upton returns include Justin Ruggiano, Matt Joyce, Jon Weber and Ray Sadler.
Ruggiano was optioned to Durham to get some at-bats and can easily be recalled. Weber and Sadler have played well this spring and Joyce -- who nursed tendinitis in his right leg for much of the spring -- seems to be gaining momentum, particularly when considering that he hits lefty and four of the first six starters the Rays face will be right-handed.
"We've talked about that, it does present for [Joyce] a little better," Maddon said. "Again, it's about [Joyce] being healthy. I really like what he's doing right now. He's starting to understand how he's going to do things here. We've had a lot of conversations with him recently, [bench coach] Davey [Martinez] and I primarily, to have him understand what we want him to get done. He listens. He's been a great student. I like it.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.