ST. PETERSBURG -- Much of what happens with the Rays' bench and designated hitter this season depends on a player they haven't been able to depend on the past couple of years.
Rocco Baldelli missed most of the last three seasons with injuries. Now the Rays are looking at him in several different roles, all of which impact the bench and DH positions and all of which are contingent upon Baldelli's health.
"Rocco is the key," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Whatever Rocco can do kind of defines everything else that we want to do."
Baldelli is penciled in as part of a three-way rotation for the right field and DH positions along with Cliff Floyd and Jonny Gomes. The player not starting every night will be available as a pinch-hitter or perhaps a late-inning defensive replacement.
"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 [plays DH], then you feel comfortable with Gomes [in right], 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.
"We have to have this other outfielder that is an outfielder. And I don't even know to what extent if we catch a lead late that you're going to want to go defense in the outfield also."
Maddon elaborated by saying if Baldelli wasn't in the lineup on a given night, he could fill the need for late-inning defense.
"Of course, part of the problem this spring will be determining how healthy Baldelli is," Maddon said. "It may go right down to like the day before Opening Day. 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."
The Rays will go with 11 or 12 pitchers, which means 13 or 14 position players will make the team. Nine of those will be starters, leaving five or six players on the bench. Of those players, one will have to be a catcher and one will be the odd man out between Gomes, Floyd and Baldelli, which leaves three or four slots to be filled. Given Maddon's past preference, a good guess for those other spots will be an outfielder and infielder and a super-utility player, who can play in the outfield or infield.
Shawn Riggans and non-roster invitees Mike DiFelice and Josh Paul will compete for the backup catcher role. John Jaso will be in camp, but is earmarked for Triple-A Durham. Riggans is coming off surgery to his right elbow, but is the youngest of the group, while DiFelice and Paul each bring a veteran's presence.
Tampa Bay Rays
If Evan Longoria makes the team as the starting third baseman, Willy Aybar will be the best bet to become the team's utility player. He has played third and second, and the Rays plan to look at him at first and in the outfield this spring. Aybar also is a switch-hitter. Joel Guzman can play third, shortstop and first, and will also be looked at as an outfielder this spring.
More times than not, a team's extra infielder will be a shortstop, which makes Ben Zobrist the favorite to be Jason Bartlett's backup at short. Zobrist can also back up at second and third. But if the Rays feel Guzman can play well enough at short, he could give Zobrist a run for the spot.
Andy Cannizaro also will get a good look at shortstop this spring, which will add to the competition.
Veteran Eric Hinske is a legitimate contender for a bench spot. Though his positional options appear limited, he hits left-handed and is a proven Major Leaguer hitter.
In the outfield, the final spot will likely be won from a group containing Justin Ruggiano, Fernando Perez, Chris Richard, and John Rodriguez. The Rays need a backup center fielder, which probably would favor either Ruggiano or Perez. But once again, they would have a backup center fielder if Baldelli stays healthy.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.