Few Spots Up for Grabs at Rays' Camp

There are 59 players currently in Rays' big league camp, but unlike in previous years, there are very few spots on the roster that are open for competition. Still, the team believes that having so many major league-ready players slated to start the year in AAA is not a problem, but a potential solution to enduring a long season competing in the American League East.

"I'm just going to go in and do the best I can and try to prove that I can be here," said bullpen-hopeful Josh Lueke standing in front of his locker before a spring training workout last month. "If I make it, I make it. Hopefully I do. If I don't and I go to AAA or wherever, I'll work hard and try to get back up."

It's a pretty standard, stock answer that reporters receive when asking players on the bubble of making a squad what their prospects are. It's the "right" answer to reply with and does little to gauge the true mind-set of a player. But in the case of many players in Rays' camp this spring, it may not matter what they say or how well they play, because barring injury, the Rays 25 man roster looks pretty well set for the most part.

"There aren't necessarily a lot of jobs to be won short of injuries. There's going to be some competition, but I think more than last year, going through meetings right now, and talking to the 59 guys in camp, the thing that has struck us is we have more depth this year", said executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman at a press conference on the eve of the start of Rays camp.

"We're going to send guys to Triple-A at the end of this camp and throughout this camp that are major league players. That's always a good thing in that it takes more than 25 guys to compete in this division. Often times, you lean on 30, 35 guys in this division and to get to this point where we are now with the depth that we have is a good thing. Short of injury that aren't necessarily that many openings."

Manager Joe Maddon echoed Friedman's assessment of the Rays's situation this spring, but asserted that the presence of so many players in camp who likely won't make the squad on Opening Day is still important for all involved.

Rays manager Joe Maddon, seen here hitting to infielders last week, agrees that there are few roles up for grabs this spring.

"There's not many, you're right, there's not many jobs that are open right now," said Maddon. "It doesn't change a whole lot. Obviously, if you're really doing the casting calls at certain spots, you're going to try to give a lot of people opportunity to see certain folks. Right now, based on how we're lining up, it's more about stringing out the preparation time and making sure guys are ready for opening day. Making sure you're not hurting anyone, making sure that you're getting enough at bats, enough innings, enough reps on defense."

Still even with so many spots on the roster already spoken for, players like infielder Will Rhymes are happy to be in the organization and know that eventually the Rays will give those that deserve to be in the major leagues a shot at proving themselves.

"They have a track record of being merit-based. If guys deserve to be there, they're going to be there. That's a huge thing. You don't necessarily get that in every organization", said Rhymes who appears to be blocked from making the squad by the presence of fellow infielder Jeff Keppinger, who unlike Rhymes has a major league deal.

There aren't many, but there ARE still a few roster spots up for grabs and one of the more obvious - and important ones - is who will share time with veteran catcher Jose Molina.

In the mix is Chris Gimenez, who was signed just a week before the start of camp. The 29-year-old veteran, who has seen big league time in parts of the past three seasons with the Indians and Mariners, believes that his ability to play multiple positions may ultimately work in his favor when the team decides who will make the final cut.

"He said (Joe Maddon) when I talked to him that he's going to try and get me in everywhere and he loves versatility," said Gimenez who in addition to catching can also play both corner infield and outfield spots. "If I have one good thing going for me - that would be it - the fact that I can catch and play all of these other positions. I like to think of it like, 'If you want to take me, you can take one less guy, because I can do so many things.' It just depends on whether they want to go that route or not."

Catcher Chris Gimenez thinks his positional-flexibilty helps his case for making the Rays Opening Day roster.

Gimenez, seems to see some humor in his status as a role/back-up player and took a jab at himself when discussing all the positions he has played as a professional.

"I've played first, third, left and right and caught. So what is that? Five positions? And bench. I've played a lot of bench," he joked.

But winning a spot on the team is a serious matter and another catcher who is fighting for the spot behind Molina says he is ready to play regularly in the majors - and has even higher aspirations than just playing time.

Catcher Robinson Chirinos who claims that he is fully recovered from a wrist injury suffered during the winter playing in his native country during the Venezuelan Winter League says, "I'm just going to do what I can do. Hopefully I'm ready to help the team win and help take them to the World Series."

Other players, like reliever Matt Bush take a more pragmatic approach to their chances of making the squad.

"For me what I do on the field is up to me, but at the same time it's the Rays' decision what they do with me, said Bush who has already been to four big league camps, including one each with the Padres and Blue Jays. "Either way I'm happy. I pitched one inning last year in the AAA playoffs, so if that's where I'm destined to start the year, then I'm all for it. That's someplace I've never even been."

The back-up catcher battle has several participants, but the players fighting for the right to be the team's Opening Day shortstop comes down to two - Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac. Maddon says that the competition between the two has been a friendly one and that ultimately the decision will come down to a "good baseball decision".

"When you draw it up coming into camp and sit them down in their meetings, there's different things to approach with each guy and that's what we're doing. ...," said Maddon when asked about the competition between Rodriguez and Briganc. "We're just going to look at it as it's in progress and try to make a good baseball decision by the end of camp and figure out who would be the better guy to start at shortstop. They're very professional about it, they're actually good friends, they interact really well."

One final area that the club needs to address is who will ultimately make the starting rotation. James Shields, David Price and reigning American League Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson are all locks, but after that, questions remain.

Andrew Friedman, when asked about the situation, reiterated that having starting pitching depth is essential in the American League East and that the team was serious this off-season when they claimed that they were in no hurry to deal a starter.

"We have 7 or 8 starters, over the course of 162 games if you go back and look, starting in 2008, we've used a minimum of 7 and in the one year, 9 starting pitchers", said Friedman. So with the razor-thin margin in this division and what can be the difference in moving on and staying home, it is something we are very, very mindful of. We don't look at it as having an over-abundance of starting pitching and it's something we aren't flipping out about."

"We said that at the beginning of the off-season and I don't think people believed us. It's something that if we can maintain it while addressing our weaknesses that would definitely be ideal."

John Gregg is Publisher and Senior Editor of Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaysDigest. He can also be reached via e-mail at raysdigest.com@gmail.com.


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