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Rays' Maddon isn't ready to count out absent Oviedo

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Published:   |   Updated: March 12, 2014 at 07:17 AM

PORT CHARLOTTE — Juan Carlos Oviedo's jersey hangs from the top of his locker, undisturbed since pitchers and catchers took part in their first workout on Feb. 15.

The right-hander, expected to be a key piece to the back of the Rays' bullpen, remains in his native Dominican Republic waiting for his work visa so he can travel to the United States.

If Oviedo walked into the clubhouse this morning ready to pitch, he would have 19 days to prepare for Opening Day.

Rays manager Joe Maddon still believes — wants to believe? — Oviedo has enough time to get ready for the March 31 season opener against the Blue Jays. Reports out of the Dominican say Oviedo has been working out regularly and throwing to hitters. But Maddon won't know Oviedo's progress until he sees him.

Maddon was asked Tuesday if he was growing concerned about Oviedo's extended absence.

“I'm not there yet regarding being concerned,” Maddon said. “But I was really anticipating that he'd be here by now. It's just awkward. Some guys get out. He can't get out. Who knows why?”

That Oviedo played under a false name from 2000 to 2011, using Leo Nunez, could be complicating matters.

Whatever the case, spring training rolls along and Oviedo, who hasn't pitched in the big leagues since Sept. 21, 2011, because of visa issues and reconstructive elbow surgery, is not in camp and no one in the Rays organization seems to know when he will arrive.

How long before Maddon becomes concerned?

“I'm at the intersection of, 'I'm OK with this,' and, 'Let's get this thing going,' ” Maddon said.

The Rays began spring training looking for the last arm in the bullpen. Now, they could be looking for two.

Right-handers Brandon Gomes, Josh Lueke, Brad Boxberger and Mark Lowe are in the hunt for the final spot in the bullpen. Lueke is the only one of the four out of options. Lowe signed a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.

The Rays tried to sign Lowe before the 2013 season, but he signed with the Angels. He made the Opening Day roster but was released June 6 after allowing 12 runs in 11 innings. He was signed by the Nationals and spent the remainder of the season in Triple-A.

Maddon has been impressed with Lowe this spring — especially with his slider.

“You see it from a distance, and then you get to see the slider up front and personal and it's a really good pitch versus righties and lefties,” Maddon said.

Lowe, 30, has pitched in the majors every season since 2006 and been on an Opening Day roster in each of the past six seasons. The Rays have had success with veteran relievers, and being a veteran works in Lowe's favor.

“We have a pretty good idea of what we think he's capable of doing,” Maddon said. “It's just about opportunity. Veteran guy, absolutely, nice.”

Maddon said he likes young starting pitchers and veteran relievers.

“That's kind of a nice way to go,” Maddon said. “Whenever you can do that, you're normally going to get those 200 innings out of a lot of guys. When things turn into crunch at the end, you've got guys who can handle the moment. I kind of like that, that combination, historically.”

That's not to say the other three are at a disadvantage, Maddon said.

Gomes and Lueke are each 29, Boxberger is 25. Though they might not have the major-league experience of Lowe, Maddon said Gomes and Lueke are the proper age to be effective in a big-league bullpen.

“For me, I've often thought 27, 28, actually, to be the sweet spot for really breaking in a good relief pitcher, a guy who has been pitching at least three or four years, minor league-wise,” Maddon said.

A few weeks ago it appeared that one of the four would make the team. Unless Oviedo arrives soon, it could be two of the four.

“I don't have any idea yet,” Maddon said when asked about a worst-case scenario on Oviedo. “I'm still counting on Oviedo being here and being ready.”

rmooney@tampatrib.com

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Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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