Rays Spring Training quick hits

Rays Spring Training quick hits

2007 record
66-96, fifth place in American League East

Projected batting order
1. 2B Akinori Iwamura:
  .285 BA, .359 OBP, .411 SLG, 7 HRs, 34 RBIs in 2007
2. LF Carl Crawford:
  .315 BA, .355 OBP, .466 SLG, 11 HRs, 80 RBIs in 2007
3. 1B Carlos Pena:
  .282 BA, .411 OBP, .627 SLG, 46 HRs, 121 RBIs in 2007
4. CF B.J. Upton:
  .300 BA, .386 OBP, .508 SLG, 24 HRs, 82 RBIs in 2007
5. RF Cliff Floyd:
  .284 BA, .373 OBP, .422 SLG, 9 HRs, 45 RBIs in 2007
6. 3B Evan Longoria (at Double-A and Triple-A):
  .299 BA, .402 OBP, .520 SLG, 26 HRs, 95 RBIs in 2007
7. DH Jonny Gomes:
  .244 BA, .322 OBP, .460 SLG, 17 HRs, 49 RBIs in 2007
8. C Dioner Navarro:
  .227 BA, .286 OBP, .356 SLG, 9 HRs, 44 RBIs in 2007
9. SS Jason Bartlett:
  .265 BA, .339 OBP, .361 SLG, 5 HRs, 43 RBIs in 2007

Projected rotation
1. Scott Kazmir, 13-9, 3.48 ERA in 2007
2. James Shields, 12-8, 3.85 ERA in 2007
3. Matt Garza, 5-7, 3.69 ERA in 2007
4. Edwin Jackson, 5-15, 5.76 ERA in 2007
5. Andy Sonnanstine, 6-10, 5.85 ERA in 2007

Projected bullpen
Closer: Troy Percival, 0 saves, 1.80 ERA in 2007
RH setup man: Al Reyes, 26 saves, 4.90 ERA in 2007
RH setup man: Dan Wheeler, 11 saves, 5.30 ERA in 2007

The new guys
Floyd: The veteran signed as a free agent in December and is expected to be part of a three-man rotation for the right field and DH positions with Gomes and Rocco Baldelli. Floyd will likely be in the lineup most nights when the Rays' opponent is a right-hander. The fact Floyd will bring a veteran presence to the Rays' clubhouse also factored into the decision to sign him.

Spring Training
News and features:
• Chastain on Longoria, Aybar  400K
• Yanks-Rays incident  400K
• Spring Spotlight: Rays  400K
• Shields on his contract  400K
Spring Training info:
MLB.com coverage  |  Schedule  |  Ballpark  |  Tickets

Bartlett: By acquiring Bartlett in a trade with the Twins, the Rays hope to find stability at shortstop. There are questions about Bartlett's defense after he made 26 errors last year -- and questions about his offense after he hit only .265 with limited power -- but the Rays believe he can provide some answers.

Garza: The righty was among a crowded group of Twins pitching prospects jockeying for playing time over the past two seasons. He struggled during his initial Major League splash in 2006, and didn't break camp with the Twins last spring. But a strong showing on the farm significantly bumped his stock, and in July he became a rotation fixture in Minnesota, finishing the year with a 3.69 ERA in 16 games. The Rays believe he has the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher; he goes to Spring Training in the No. 3 spot in the rotation.

Percival: The veteran reliever revived his career in 2007 with the Cardinals, going 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA in 34 games. Rays manager Joe Maddon has a history with Percival from the Angels and plans to insert him as the team's closer. Percival is 12th on the all-time saves list with 324, but he hasn't earned a single save in nearly 2 1/2 years. Signing Percival strengthened the Rays' 'pen by giving them a proven closer while also bumping last year's closer, Reyes, to a setup role.

Willy Aybar: The Rays acquired Aybar, along with Minor League infielder Chase Fontaine, from the Braves in exchange for left-hander Jeff Ridgway. Aybar, 24, missed all of last season due to an injured right wrist and a stint at a rehabilitation facility for substance abuse. The Rays like his defensive flexibility. He can play third and second, and they plan on looking at him at first base and in the outfield. Aybar is a switch-hitter, but the Rays particularly like him from the left side.

Mike DiFelice: The 38-year-old was an original member of the Rays, appearing in 242 games for the team from 1998 until he was dealt to the Diamondbacks at the 2001 trading deadline. The veteran catcher signed a Minor League contract with an invite to Spring Training. He has spent all or part of the past 12 seasons at the Major League level, batting .235 with 28 home runs and 163 RBIs in 548 career games with the Rays, Cardinals (1996-97, 2002), Diamondbacks (2001), Royals (2003), Tigers (2004), Cubs (2004) and Mets (2005-07).

Kurt Birkins: The 27-year-old left-hander split time between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk (8-4, 3.07 ERA over 19 starts) in 2007, going 1-2 with an 8.13 ERA over 19 games (two starts) with the Orioles. Birkins will compete for a job in the bullpen, and the fact he is left-handed could bode well for his pursuit.

Andy Cannizaro: Signed to a Minor League contract with an invite to Spring Training, Cannizaro, 29, arrives from the Yankees organization, where he played 52 games at second base, shortstop and third base with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2007 and completed an eight-game rehabilitation assignment with Double-A Trenton. A right-handed hitter, Cannizaro hit .250 during a 13-game stint with New York in September 2006, and entered 2007 Spring Training vying for a Major League roster spot until a back injury during the first week of camp sidelined him through June. He will compete for a backup infield spot.

John Rodriguez: Signed to a Minor League contract with an invite to Spring Training, Rodriguez has played 11 seasons in the Yankees (1997-2004), Indians (2004) and Cardinals (2005-07) organizations and spent part of this offseason playing for the Caribes de Anzoategui of the Venezuelan Winter League. Over 158 Major League games with St. Louis between 2005-06, Rodriguez hit .298 with seven home runs, 43 RBIs, 18 doubles and a .378 on-base percentage. Given the precarious nature of right field, Rodriguez could work himself onto the roster if certain scenarios develop.

Prospects to watch
Longoria: The third baseman played at Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham in 2007, and hit .299 with 26 home runs and 95 RBIs in 136 games, including a .402 on-base percentage and a .520 slugging percentage. At the end of the 2007 season, the Rays announced Longoria would know if he was going to make the team prior to the start of Spring Training. That decision has not yet been announced.

Jeff Niemann: The fourth overall pick of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, Niemann finally appears ready to make a run at finding a spot in the Rays' rotation. At Durham in 2007, the 6-foot-9, 280-pound right-hander went 12-6 with a 3.98 ERA, 46 walks and 123 strikeouts in 131 innings. He can be overpowering and has a nice assortment of pitches.

Mitch Talbot: The 24-year-old right-hander is said to have some of the best stuff in the Rays' system, but he occasionally lets his emotions get the best of him. Talbot showed well at Durham in 2007, going 13-9 with a 4.53 ERA, 59 walks and 124 strikeouts in 161 innings. He is a long shot to earn a spot in the Rays' rotation, but he is one of the contenders for the two available spots.

Returning from injury
Baldelli: After teasing Rays fans with what he could do during the second half of the 2006 season, Baldelli missed most of the 2007 season with assorted leg problems. When Baldelli is healthy, he is the total package, showing splendid range and fielding prowess in the outfield, along with power and speed at the plate. The big question -- and it's a huge one -- will be his health. Even if he's used at DH, he'll be considered a risk to go on the disabled list at any point of the season.

Shawn Riggans: Riggans began the 2007 season at Durham, where he hit .295 with four home runs and 14 RBIs before going on the disabled list. He made three starts with the Rays before returning to the DL. Eventually he had season-ending surgery to have a "loose body" removed from his elbow. He will be in contention with DiFelice for the backup catcher's job.

On the rebound
Baldelli: The talented outfielder heads to Spring Training as the Rays' biggest question mark. If he's healthy, he should be a productive part of a three-way rotation to fill the right field and DH slots. In addition, he can back up in center and left fields. If he is not healthy, it is fair to speculate on whether he will ever be healthy given his injury history over the past three seasons.

Bartlett: The shortstop committed 26 errors last season, the most at that position in the Major Leagues. But he has a strong arm and good range, which are attributes not seen in a box score. Some of Bartlett's struggles in 2007 can be attributed to neck and shoulder injuries that plagued him throughout the season. Regardless, the Rays are sold on the player who will take over at shortstop this season.

Long gone
Delmon Young: The Rays' top prospect was traded to the Twins after playing his first full season in the Major Leagues in 2007. Young played in every game, while hitting .288 with 13 home runs and 93 RBIs. Those numbers -- particularly the home runs -- should improve. Young has a good eye, but he likes to swing away, which contributed to his paltry walk total of 26 and .319 on-base percentage. Young wants to be great, he works hard, and his talents are obvious.

Brian Stokes: Now with the Mets, Stokes might have been thrown in over his head to start the 2007 season when he was used in a setup role and was not able to handle the assignment. The right-hander has terrific stuff, including a power arm capable of producing 95-mph fastballs. What he has lacked is command. His troubles mostly stemmed from leaving fastballs up in the strike zone with predictable results.

Jon Switzer: Now a non-roster invitee with the Red Sox, Switzer has been the prime left-hander to work out of the Rays' bullpen the past two seasons, though he has spent parts of the 2006 and '07 seasons at Durham. He does better against left-handers (.242 batting average) than right-handers (.404) and he closed the season by pitching well in September (4.66 ERA).

Greg Norton: Norton, who's contract option was declined in November, struggled in 2007, primarily due to injuries, and his numbers suffered accordingly. He had offseason surgery to repair a painful left elbow and should be good as new. Norton provides quality at-bats and can put up solid numbers when healthy. Based on his makeup, Norton should be considered more for what he did in 2006 (.296, 17 HRs, 45 RBIs) rather than for what he didn't do in 2007 (.243, 4 HRs, 24 RBIs).

Brendan Harris: The infielder was a great find for the Rays in 2007 before going to the Twins in a trade after the season. He hit and played well in the field at both shortstop and second base. Harris had better numbers in the first half (.310, 8 HRs, 39 RBIs) than the second half (.256, 4 HRs, 20 RBIs), but he also was adjusting to playing second base rather than shortstop, where he played primarily in the first half.

Josh Wilson: Wilson has a slick glove, though he suffered through a couple of inconsistent spells in the field. He has a weak bat no matter what position he plays. He hit just .238 with an on-base percentage of .290, showing little to no power (2 HRs, 24 RBIs). The Pirates claimed Wilson off waivers.

Elijah Dukes: Dukes began the year in center field for the Rays, but off-the-field problems eventually led Rays officials to classify him as a distraction, which resulted in him being placed on the temporary inactive list. He did not play for the Rays again during the 2007 season and was traded to the Nationals at the Winter Meetings. Dukes hit .190 with 10 home runs and 21 RBIs in 52 games.

Jeff Ridgway: The 27-year-old made his Major League debut with the Rays in September after spending seven seasons in the Rays' Minor League system. He made three relief appearances for the Rays and went 0-0 with a 189.00 ERA. He went 2-3 with four saves for Durham in 2007, his first full season at the Triple-A level. He led the staff with 54 appearances and struck out 67 in 64 2/3 innings.

2007 hitting leaders (min. 200 at-bats)
Avg.: Crawford, .315
OBP: Pena, .411
SLG: Pena, .627
Runs: Pena, 99
RBIs: Pena, 121
Hits: Young, 186
2B: Young, 38
3B: Iwamura, 10
HRs: Pena, 46
SB: Crawford, 50
2007 pitching leaders (min. 30 IP)
IP: Shields, 215
W: Kazmir, 13
L: Jackson, 15
Win %: Shields, .600 (12-8)
S: Reyes, 26
ERA: Dohmann, 3.31
K: Kazmir, 239
K/9: Grant Balfour, 11.05
WHIP: Shields, 1.11

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Will the trio of Gomes, Baldelli and Floyd be able to cover the Rays in right field and DH?
Baldelli has fought injuries the past three seasons, Floyd has been injury prone throughout his career, and Gomes is inconsistent when he does not play regularly. Still, this threesome has a lot of talent. Maddon will have to do a masterful job of keeping Baldelli healthy, resting Floyd enough for him to be productive, and keeping Gomes from getting rusty.

2. How much better will the bullpen be with Percival?
Percival did not have any saves in 2007 during his comeback with the Cardinals. More importantly, he showed he still could pitch, which should be all that matters, since the veteran has shown throughout his career he is mentally tough enough to close games. Percival's addition allows the Rays to move Reyes down to a setup role, which makes the bullpen that much tougher. This year's bullpen should show a marked improvement over Rays 'pens past.

What should be the Rays' biggest concern this spring?
If Evan Longoria can win the third-base job
Finding two quality starters to round out the rotation
Whether Rocco Baldelli will be able to stay healthy

3. Just how good is Longoria?
Is Longoria really the next Troy Glaus? Or will the Rays' top prospect need further seasoning? That question should be answered this spring. Once the Rays decide to bring him up to the Major Leagues, they sound as though they will be committed to him. His Minor League resume is full of glowing reports.

The bottom line

With a lot of new faces in camp, the Rays must blend into a unit. This should not be a difficult task given the level of talent the team has and -- for a change -- the number of positions that are not question marks. Decisions must be made on whether Longoria is ready to take over at third -- and if he's not, who plays there in the interim -- and the team must decide on the final two spots in the rotation and who will occupy the middle-relief spots.

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