Spring training in a unique time in the baseball calendar, with established veterans, top prospects, former major leaguers trying to make it back, and even Triple-A lifers hoping for a chance all playing on the same field, giving fans a chance to see their favorite players but also get an appreciation for the ones that they may not see once the regular season begins. Spring training is fun, but by the end of it one key objective has to be accomplished: the Rays have to whittle their 40-man roster and 26 non-roster invitees down to just 25 players for their Opening Day roster. The Rays have over a month to figure that all out, but whose roster spots are sure things and which competitions are the ones to watch this spring? Let’s go position-by-position and attempt to figure that out.
Sleeper: Mike Montgomery
The Rays expect to have a great rotation once again in 2013, and that starts from the four players already set to be in their rotation, Price, Hellickson, Moore, and Cobb. But the Rays expect to get outstanding production from their fifth starter spot as well with four quality options in Niemann, Hernandez, Archer, and Odorizzi, all of whom would likely get a starting spot in other organizations. All four have excellent stuff and the ability to be far better than a 5th starter if given a chance. The competition gets crazier because Niemann could be traded (the Rockies are reportedly interested) if he doesn’t win the job and Hernandez certainly and maybe even Archer would get a bullpen role if they lose out. Montgomery had a terrible spring debut, but if you’re looking for a candidate for the 5th spot other than the four favorites, it’s certainly him. He’s coming off a pair of disastrous seasons, but his stuff remains top-notch and you never know, maybe everything clicks and the Rays are forced to give him a serious look.
Sleeper: Alex Torres
The Rays’ bullpen was the best in the American League in 2012, headlined by the lowest ERA minimum in MLB history 50 innings courtesy of Rodney and a ridiculous season by Jake McGee as well, and those two plus Joel Peralta give the Rays a dynamic late-inning punch. Kyle Farnsworth was inconsistent in 2012 but wound up with a 2.16 ERA taking out his first three and last two appearances and is certainly qualified for a middle relief role. Cesar Ramos pitched great in 17 appearances for the Rays this past season, and considering he’s out of options, he will almost certainly break came with the Rays. Behind them, there are two spots remaining and one of them will likely go to a starting pitcher that loses out in the rotation battle, probably Hernandez although Archer might get a look as well, while for the other spot the heavy favorite is sinkerballer Jamey Wright, who should seamlessly replace Burke Badenhop and might even wind up being better. Behind Wright, you have Josh Lueke and Brandon Gomes, with Lueke having great stuff but looking to rebound from an extremely inconsistent year primarily at Triple-A in 2012 and Gomes suffering through a lost year dealing with a back injury after being a key part of the Rays’ 2011 bullpen, and both have the ability to impress this spring and make the team. The most interesting player to see might be Alex Torres, who had an almost unimaginably bad season at Triple-A in 2012 but finished strong and then blew away hitters at Winter Ball, and if there’s anything that would prompt the Rays to designate Ramos for assignment, it would be Torres continuing to roll while Ramos struggled.
Locks (1): Jose Molina
Sleeper: Mark Thomas
For the second year in a row, the Rays aren’t set to have a true starting catcher and will instead mix-and-match with Jose Molina and another catcher which each playing about half the Rays’ games. Lobtaon is the incumbent to play with Molina, but he’s never going to be more than below-average either offensively or defensively. The question is whether Gimenez or Chirinos can prove to be something better. Gimenez may have made a breakthrough at the plate playing regularly in Triple-A for the first time in years and then playing great after returning to the major leagues in the latter part of the year, while Chirinos missed all of 2012 with a concussion but has the most potential of anyone on both sides of the ball if he can stay healthy. It may be best for Chirinos to play regularly at Triple-A for a while to get back in the swing of things, so Lobaton and Gimenez are the ones really competing and the competition could go right down to the wire. One player who could surprise, though, is Mark Thomas, the best defensive catcher in the entire Rays organization other than Molina who hit very well in the second half of 2012 at Double-A. Thomas will likely spend 2013 at Triple-A trying to prove that he can be the Rays’ catcher of the future, but with a big spring he could force the issue and get into the Rays’ catcher pitcher immediately.
It would have been nice to divide this entire infielders and outfielders, but the questions about where Zobrist and Johnson will play plus the nature of the competition we’ll talk about in a second makes it sense just to lump everyone together. The Rays’ starting lineup could be as good as ever with Longoria, Escobar, Loney, Scott, and Jennings manning third base, shortstop, first base, designated hitter, and centerfield and then Zobrist, Joyce, and Johnson filling right field, left field, and second base in whichever alignment the Rays feel will serve them best defensively. Roberts and Fuld will fill backup roles, with Roberts seeing quite a bit of playing time against left-handed pitching while Fuld serves more of a true backup role playing all three outfield positions. The last spot is going to be very interesting. Rodriguez is the only one in competition for a spot making guaranteed money in 2013, but it’s only 1 million dollars and it wouldn’t be too hard for the Rays to find a trade partner for him, so there’s absolutely no guarantee he’ll make the roster. Each of the four players in competition gives the Rays something different- Rodriguez has hit lefties well in the past (although not in 2012) and can be play shortstop, something only the starter Escobar and Zobrist can do. Guyer, meanwhile, has the ability to be a much better right-handed hitter than Rodriguez while manning an outfield spot, although he’ll coming off of shoulder surgery and even if the Rays think he can be a starter or a valuable platoon player, he may be best served getting his feet under him at Triple-A before he gets called up. Duncan, meanwhile, is another right-handed hitter would fill the Rays’ hole of not having another experienced first baseman behind Loney and could in fact push Loney to the bench against lefties given Loney’s struggles against them. And then you have Myers, the top prospect with superstar potential, although he’s probably best served with more time in the minor leagues, both to keep him under team control and to make sure he’s entirely ready before he arrives. This looks like a competition primarily between Rodriguez, Guyer, and Duncan, and Rodriguez has to be the favorite given the money he’s making but Guyer or Duncan could certainly seize the job if they play well enough, although Guyer is currently dealing with a leg issue that could sideline him the next couple of days. The 25th man is still up in the air, but this might be the most talented group of position players the Rays have had in quite a while and maybe this is the year the Rays’ offense generates enough run that the pitching can carry this team to the postseason and beyond.