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Who Are Currently Set To Make the Tampa Bay Rays’ Roster?

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We can’t say that the Tampa Bay Rays are halfway through spring training–they have played 12 games and still have 19 more to go counting today. Even so, yesterday represented a good stopping point as the Rays had their first off-day since exhibition games began. The Rays cut eight prospects from their big league camp on Sunday and have a better idea of which players will compose their Opening Day roster.

It is also a good time to ask the following question: given the information we have, who are those players going to be? The spring started with the Rays having competitions in their middle infield, in their rotation, in their bullpen, and for their backup catcher and 25th man roles. Let’s talk about where those races stand thus far.

We can start by talking about the players that are locks to make the Rays’ Opening Day roster, pending injury.

Pitchers (7): Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Brad Boxberger, Kevin Jepsen, Ernesto Frieri, Jeff Beliveau

Catchers (1): Rene Rivera

Infielders (4): Evan Longoria, Asdrubal Cabrera, James Loney, Logan Forsythe

Outfielders (2): Desmond Jennings, Kevin Kiermaier

Designated Hitter (1): John Jaso

If the total number of sure bets to make the roster (15), seems a little low, there are three players who come just short of that standard. It looks like Brandon Guyer and Grant Balfour will be ready for Opening Day, but Guyer needs to finish recovering from his minor oblique injury while Balfour has to make up for the time he unfortunately missed after the passing of his father.

Another player to talk about is Steven Souza. Souza will presumably be on the roster and has not looked terrible this spring. He has hit a home run and has done a nice job working counts. He has also looked very good defensively. Even if the probability of Souza making the team is very high, though, let’s stop short of saying that his place on the roster is guaranteed.

Then we have the players who are set to begin the season on the disabled list. They will all be with the Rays when they are healthy, but that will take at least a week or two to happen for each of them. Those players are Matt Moore (set to return around June), Jake McGee (mid-to-late April), Drew Smyly (sometime in April), and Alex Colome (same as Smyly). Ronald Belisario is also injured, but his spot when he returns is much less secure.

Finally, we arrive at the competitions. We will start on the middle infield. As of right now, it looks like Nick Franklin will beat out Tim Beckham for a starting role. Franklin entered the spring as the favorite, and has proceeded to look good against right-handed pitching and slightly better than expected against lefties. We can’t read too much into the small sample size, but Franklin has done nothing to hurt the place he was thought to have with the Rays.

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Beckham, meanwhile, entered the spring with something to prove and has done nothing in that direction. He is 2 for 18 with 7 strikeouts against no walks, and while those numbers come with a million grains of salt, the Rays had to hoping that he would be making more of an impression. Beckham has looked fine defensively while Franklin has made a few mistakes, but he also hasn’t made any memorable play that comes to mind. We will talk about Beckham more for a bench role.

The point on Franklin’s defense may be more interesting than the race between him and Beckham at this point. Franklin has been mostly fine on the routine plays at shortstop, looking a little bit worse on double plays and a lot better on relays. Have the Rays seen enough to start Cabrera at shortstop over him? Cabrera has looked fine, but given his struggles at short the last several years, Franklin is still currently lined up to play the tougher position for the Rays this season.

In the rotation, meanwhile, Alex Cobb will start on Opening Day, Chris Archer will start the Rays’ second game, and Jake Odorizzi will almost surely start the Rays’ third contest at this point. Then, with Alex Colome not yet an option, Nate Karns will be the Rays’ fourth starter for now, basically by default. He hasn’t been perfect, especially struggling with his changeup, but he is talented enough to give this team some quality starts.

The Rays only need four starters until April 14th, and they have to hope that either Smyly or Colome will be ready by that point. If they do need another spot-starter, Burch Smith looks to be that pitcher. He really needs to build up innings after tossing just 5 regular-season frames last season, but he has looked much better than Matt Andriese while Mike Montgomery is more realistically a reliever at this point. One or two emergency starts seem realistic for him.

Since the Rays won’t need Smith or any other fifth starter to begin the year, though, they have the opportunity to carry either an eighth reliever or a 13th position player. Of course, that is where things start to get complicated as the competition pits players at different positions against each other.

The one last straightforward position is backup catcher. Curt Casali has looked good, but not good enough to beat out Bobby Wilson. Maybe Casali will play well enough at Triple-A to trigger Wilson’s designation for assignment in a few months, but considering Casali’s offensive struggles at both Durham and in the major leagues last season, he is best off getting more minor league time. The Rays have no reason to deviate from their plan to use Wilson as Rene Rivera’s backup to begin the year.

In the bullpen, the Rays have a lot of different ways they can go. Kirby Yates, Steve Geltz, C.J. Riefenhauser, Brandon Gomes, and Mike Montgomery are all realistic candidates, and as many as three of them could make the team. Gomes, Riefenhauser, and Montgomery have looked particularly good this spring.

However, Gomes and Montgomery are hurt by the fact that one spot will disappear on April 15th, another when McGee returns, and potentially the third if Colome ends up the bullpen. Gomes won’t be added to the 40-man roster just to pitch in a few games and it is hard to believe that Montgomery will be called up unless he is being handed a more permanent spot.

It is also worth noting that Riefenhauser may have the biggest need of any of the five to pitch at Triple-A after his struggles in the second half of last year. While he remains ahead of Gomes and Montgomery and the Rays may have less qualms about sending him up and down, he is also clearly behind Yates and Geltz. As of right now, the Rays are set to go with Yates and Geltz if they have two available spots and Riefenhauser if they decide to have an eighth reliever.

On the position player side, meanwhile, the remaining notable candidates to make the Rays’ roster are David DeJesus, Tim Beckham, Juan Francisco, and Jake Elmore. Guys like Corey Brown and Joey Butler can’t be ruled out entirely, but they are certainly behind that group.

Of course, we know that DeJesus is a prime trade candidate. We don’t know how much money Francisco will earn if he makes the Rays’ roster, but even if it was $1.5 million, DeJesus is owed more than double what the other three would earn combined if they were in the major leagues and he simply isn’t that much better.

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The primary need we still haven’t filled on the Rays’ roster in a righty-hitting backup infielder. Beckham and Elmore both fit that profile, and Marc Topkin gives the edge to Elmore for now. It is tempting to agree with him because Beckham could use regular at-bats at Triple-A and Elmore has much more versatility. Elmore also happens to have better minor league numbers–it would certainly help Beckham’s case if he had a better track record of hitting.

On the other hand, it is pretty clear that Beckham has more potential than Elmore and we are not talking about simply a 25th man role. Elmore has good Triple-A stats, but he has never hit for any semblance of power. He doesn’t have the profile to hit well in the major leagues, and he hasn’t at all in his 221 big league plate appearances. He also is hitting .077 this spring, so there isn’t even the small sample size argument for him.

In regards to the role of this bench player, meanwhile, Nick Franklin has struggled against lefty pitching for a long time, and we are talking about his potential platoon partner. Even if Franklin does hit them, having a reliable righty bat would allow the Rays to spot James Loney more often against tough lefties. If the Rays want a player with any realistic chance of being that guy, they should choose Beckham.

For the other spot, meanwhile, the Rays could easily carry DeJesus if they wanted. It would be more difficult once they need a fifth starter, but for their first seven games of the season, they would have a reliable bench bat. Wouldn’t it be such a Rays thing to do if they didn’t trade him until then? They could also trade DeJesus and use his roster spot for Francisco, but what would they do with Francisco once his spot disappears?

As of right now, it makes sense for the Rays to carry DeJesus to begin the season. If the Rays get a good enough trade offer, they can certainly deal DeJesus earlier and put Riefenhauser in their bullpen, but a bench bat has more value than them than an extra long reliever, especially with pitchers rested at the beginning of the year. I’ll stick to my guns and say that they will go with DeJesus over Riefenhauser and Francisco.

With that in mind, here is my projected Tampa Bay Rays’ roster for Opening Day.

Pitchers (11): Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Nate Karns, Brad Boxberger, Kevin Jepsen, Ernesto Frieri, Grant Balfour, Jeff Beliveau, Kirby Yates, Steve Geltz

Catchers (2): Rene Rivera, Bobby Wilson

Infielders (6): Evan Longoria, Asdrubal Cabrera, James Loney, Nick Franklin, Logan Forsythe, Tim Beckham

Outfielders (5): Desmond Jennings, Kevin Kiermaier, Steven Souza, Brandon Guyer, David DeJesus

Designated Hitter (1): John Jaso

A lot can change between now and Opening Day, and the Tampa Bay Rays are set for even more roster turmoil in April. However, it is always nice to have the information for a more informed opinion and the 25 players that will begin the season with the team are finally coming into view.

Next: Cuban Defector Yaniel Cabezas the Rays' Latest International Splash

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