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Joe Henderson

Bullpen creates questions for versatile Rays

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 07:01 PM

Just before they burst on the national scene in 2008, it was generally conceded the Tampa Bay Rays would be much improved - people just didn't know to what degree. We know what happened then. But there has never been the anticipation of success for a season quite like the Rays are experiencing now.

With Opening Day set for next Tuesday, it's accepted that the Rays will be in a three-way race for the American League East Division championship with New York and Boston. How they'll finish depends on where you look and who you ask.

A talking head on ESPN said the other day that, to him, the Rays are the most talented team in baseball - better than the Yankees, better than the Red Sox. ESPN The Magazine applied statistical analysis to the situation and had the Rays winning 93 games but falling a game short of making the playoffs.

Fun stuff.

But it's also pretty big talk for a team that won 84 games just a year ago and now faces serious questions in the bullpen. That's why it wouldn't surprise me if Executive Vice President Andrew Friedman pulls off a trade in the next few days to address the concerns in the pen. The injury that has shut J.P. Howell down this spring continues to throw shadows over all the optimism around this club and no one is sure when - or even if - he'll be back.

The best-case scenario seems to be that he'll miss at least a month, but the Rays are generally conservative with situations like this and it wouldn't surprise anyone if Howell misses two months or more. We saw what happened last year when they got off to a poor start. They spent most of the season trying to dig out that early hole and never could.

So let's assume Friedman is running up his cell phone minutes trying to address that problem. Late spring trades are not unusual and the Rays have many interesting pieces they could use - assuming they find the right guy. Friedman has a way of zeroing in on off-Broadway names that most speculators wouldn't think about, so it's probably a foolish enterprise to attempt a guess at whom he might be focused on.

They do have three spots available on the 40-man roster, which is unusual. Fox Sports reported Monday that most clubs have no room left on their 40-man rosters and that only 28 spots were available in total over both leagues. That lack of maneuverability can inhibit trades, since many clubs would have to create room before they could make a deal with the Rays or any other team.

The biggest thing about this club that separates it from many teams is its versatility. I chatted about that with manager Joe Maddon last Friday in Dunedin.

"I really have so many options," he said.

Take the infield, for instance. Newcomer Sean Rodriguez will see a lot of time at second, but he can also play shortstop and third - maybe even first base in a pinch. We know about Ben Zobrist. Hank Blalock creates interesting problems, too. The Rays have to decide what to do with him by Thursday or risk losing him - he can opt out of his contract then if he's not on the big-league roster.

Blalock can play third or first base as well as DH and he'd provide a nice insurance policy should the Rays lose Carlos Pena either through trade or free agency at the end of the year.

A bold move would be to keep him and release Pat Burrell, who has struggled all spring after bombing last year. They owe him $9 million regardless for this season. Economists refer to that as "sunk costs" - meaning he's going to get his money whether he hits .215 this season or not.

Just a thought.

Back to reality, let's not forget about Andy Sonnanstine, either, when it comes to versatility.

Teams in need of starting pitching may want to speak to Friedman about Sonnanstine, who lost out the battle for the fifth starter's job to Wade Davis. People remember he won 13 games as a starter in 2008 before struggling last year with command.

He has pitched well this spring though and, with Howell's uncertainty, Sonnanstine could emerge as one of the most important members of the bullpen. Even when he was having success in the rotation, a lot of people were intrigued by the idea of Sonnanstine coming out of the bullpen because he throws strikes. The worst thing a reliever can do is start walking guys.

In that sense, Sonnanstine could be a right-handed version of Howell - someone without overpowering stuff, who relies on location. Remember, Howell struggled as a starter too before finding his niche as a reliever. Since a reliever only needs to work through a handful of hitters instead of going through the lineup two or three times, Sonnanstine could flourish in that role.

The Rays surely need that.

They have enough talent to win the whole thing.

They have just enough questions to make a person wonder.

We'll get the answers to those questions soon enough. The season begins in a week.

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