Around the Horn: Outfielders

Around the Horn: Outfielders

The following is the fourth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Outfielders.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Left and center fields are as sure a thing as death and taxes. Right field is as unstable as the nation's economy. Should be an interesting 2008 season in the Rays' outfield.

Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton will anchor left and center, and few, if any, teams in baseball can boast about having such an athletic tandem. Not only is this pair athletic, they have the numbers to prove they are ballplayers as well.

At the ripe old age of 26, Crawford enters his seventh Major League season as one of the team's grizzled veterans. He is an exception in that every year he plays up to a level that few players ever attain, yet somehow, he still manages to show improvement the following season.

Despite missing the final 12 games of the 2007 campaign due to a left groin strain, Crawford managed to win his fourth American League stolen base crown (tied with Brian Roberts of Baltimore at 50) while hitting a career-best .315 with 11 home runs and 80 RBIs. Combine all of that offensive talent with Gold Glove skills in the field and you have one of the best players in baseball.

Upton joined Crawford in the outfield in 2007, taking over in center following the aftermath of Rocco Baldelli's hamstring injury in May, and he thrived defensively even though he'd never played the position. Based on what Upton showed during his time in the outfield and at the plate, it's easy to forecast super stardom for the youngster. The ball seems to explode when it comes off his bat and that translated to 24 home runs and 82 RBIs to go along with a .300 average in 2007.

Superlatives are never sparse when talking about either Crawford or Upton, while speculation rules the conversation when it comes to right field.

Delmon Young gave the Rays a steady presence in right in 2007 with one of the Major Leagues' strongest arms and a solid bat. But the Rays needed a shortstop, so Young was shipped to Minnesota, along with infielder Brendan Harris and outfielder Jason Pridie for right-handers Matt Garza and Eduardo Morlan and shortstop Jason Bartlett. The move left right field up for grabs between Baldelli, Jonny Gomes and Cliff Floyd. Heading into Spring Training, the Rays plan to use that trio to fill the DH and right-field slots.

Tampa Bay Rays
Catchers: Navarro on way up
Corner IF: Power potential for Rays
Middle IF: New spot for Iwamura
Outfielders: RF up for grabs
Starters: Rays pack one-two punch
Bullpen: Percival stabilizes ninth
DH/Bench: A crowded picture

Among the risks is the fact Baldelli missed most of the last three seasons with injuries. When healthy, he's proved he can play.

"Rocco is the key," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Whatever Rocco can do kind of defines everything else that we want to do."

Of course part of the problem this spring will be determining how healthy Baldelli is.

"It may go right down to like the day before Opening Day," Maddon said. "It may. I'm not disputing that that's a definite possibility. ... By the middle of Spring Training, I would like to be able to think we have a pretty good feel."

Meanwhile, the Rays signed help in the veteran free agent, Floyd.

"We were looking for a left-handed bat to compliment our existing players," said executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "And we're comfortable that Cliff will fit in very nicely to the DH/right-field rotation."

And Gomes? That depends on which Gomes the team gets. Gomes finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting in 2005, he played injured in 2006, and his role never quite got defined in 2007.

"Jon Gomes, I still have a lot of faith in him," Maddon said. "I think specifically Jon against left-handed pitching does a nice job. ... [Gomes] plays with the kind of enthusiasm that we're looking for every day. I think he cares. All that stuff matters."

Looking at who will make up the rest of the outfield -- much of that will be determined by what happens with Baldelli.

"If Rocco is well, that really relieves a lot of outfield pressure," Maddon said. "That defines that. Rocco backs up in left, Rocco backs up in center, Rocco DHs, then you feel comfortable with Gomes, because you don't want to put Cliff out there too often, from what I understand. It just doesn't sound like the wise thing to do [based on his injury history]."

Other candidates to fill the reserve outfield slots could come from the infield in recently acquired Willy Aybar or Joel Guzman, who will both be issued outfield gloves in the spring. In addition, the Rays have speedy Fernando Perez and Justin Ruggiano, who can both play center field, where the Rays are somewhat exposed right now while searching for a backup -- particularly if Baldelli is not ready. Non-roster invitees Chris Richard, John Rodriguez and Jon Weber will also get looks this spring.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.