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Rays

Rays preview: Players to watch

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:09 AM

Starting pitcher

LHP Matt Moore: All eyes will be on Moore, who was ridiculously good at the end of last season when he struck out 11 in five scoreless innings at Yankee Stadium during his lone regular season start. He followed that up by shutting out the Rangers over seven innings to earn the Rays lone playoff victory.

A big contract, a spot in the rotation and the tag as the top pitching prospect in baseball will follow the rookie this season like a shadow. Plenty of people in the game believe Moore can be one of the best. There will be some growing pains. There is also the potential for some magical nights.

Bench

INF Jeff Keppinger: Almost a non-existent role on this team with the way Joe Maddon uses his players, but Keppinger's ability to hit left-handers (.324 career average) means he will play second base on days when a lefty starts and will be a bat off the bench when a lefty comes in from the bullpen.

He is also seeing time at first base this spring, because Maddon wants to use him there to give Carlos Peña a day off against a tough lefty. Keppinger could also find himself at shortstop in the later innings as Maddon tries to create matchups against the opposing bullpen.

Reliever

LHP J.P. Howell: Howell's struggles last season were due to his layoff and rehab from the shoulder surgery that cost him the 2010 season. He's back because the Rays believe he can regain the form that was so important to the 2008 championship team.

Howell is healthy and has been able to maintain his delivery this spring. That is good news, because a healthy and productive Howell allows Maddon to use him late in games against a tough lefty and also leave him in to face a righty if it comes in the middle of a lefty-righty-lefty sequence. A healthy Howell makes the back of the bullpen, in the words of Maddon, "thicker."

Prospects

RHP Alex Cobb: Cobb will be remembered for the boost he gave the 2011 rotation when he joined the staff as the sixth starter after the All-Star Break. It should be a role he reprises this summer as the Rays look to keep the members of the rotation fresh for meaningful games in September.

Healthy after surgery last August to repair a blockage near his first right rib, Cobb was sent to the minor leagues early in camp so he could concentrate on getting ready for the season. He was told he would be needed this summer on the big club, whether it is to replace an injured starter or add depth to the rotation. So, work hard, fine tune your pitches and keep your cell phone on.

SS Hak-Ju Lee: It's highly unlikely Lee reaches the big leagues this season, but the shortstop gave the Rays a glimpse of the future during spring training, especially with his silky smooth defense.

His progress this summer will surely impact the Rays'plans during the 2012 offseason. Improvements at the plate could earn him a chance to compete for a big league job next spring and might make some members of the 25-man roster expandable. He's also the reason why Tim Beckham, once the organization's top shortstop prospect, is fielding grounders at second base.

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