Insider: Injuries Could Impact Rays’ Roster

The Tampa Bay Rays made another round of roster cuts on Sunday, reassigning right-handed pitchers Jhonny Nunez and Romulo Sanchez along with position players Matt Mangini, Craig Albernaz, and Brad Coon to minor league camp. Nunez and Sanchez should provide depth in the Durham Bulls’ bullpen while Mangini should find himself in their everyday lineup. Although the Rays are down to just 34 players in camp, injuries have put several opening day roster spots in question.

Currently, outfielders B.J. Upton (soreness), Desmond Jennings (shoulder), and Sam Fuld (wrist) are day-to-day with a variety of ailments. Shortstop Reid Brignac (foot) is working his way back on to the field, appearing in minor league games, and could be back in the Rays’ lineup this week. Jennings should be good to go sometime this week as well; however the status of Upton and Fuld are unknown and could impact who leaves camp with the team next week.

If Jennings and Brignac return healthy and Upton and Fuld do not, that opens up two temporary spots on the 25-man roster. Despite both players being outfielders, their replacements do not necessarily have to play the same position. Utility man Elliot Johnson is first in line if Tampa Bay needs to put a player on the disabled list. Johnson spent most of 2011 as a shortstop, but has played six different positions in the major leagues and has roamed the diamond this spring. If both Upton and Fuld hit the DL, Brandon Guyer would likely be the other replacement on the roster.

As the team’s starting center fielder, Upton’s injury would have significantly more impact on the Rays’ plans; however, his spot in the lineup may not be replaced by an outfielder. Without Upton, the team would likely slide Jennings to center field – his natural position – creating an opening in left field. The team could then move Matt Joyce to left field and replace him in right with Ben Zobrist. Under that scenario, Jeff Keppinger – the likely starter at second base versus left-handers – could end up as the defacto replacement for Upton, starting the season as the team’s primary player at the keystone position.

While we wait and see how the position players recover from injury before we know who will play and where, we should have an idea on who will be the team’s fifth starter in the next day or so. Both Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis have had inconsistent spring trainings, but the decision on which stays in the rotation and who moves to the bullpen will not made on the small sample size of the spring. Based on a number of factors – including health and ability to get loose – it appears as if Niemann is the favorite to remain a starter. Davis says he’s ready for whatever role he is given and could actually see the effectiveness of his fastball increase in shorter appearances. If the two right-handers remain with the team for the duration of the season, it is a safe bet that we will see starts from both pitchers at some point.

In regards to the second catcher position, the in-camp battle between Jose Lobaton and Chris Gimenez continues. Gimenez, a non-roster invitee, offers versatility that expands from behind the plate to the corner infield and outfield; however, Lobaton provides solid defense and has the ability to hit from both sides of the plate. He is also out of options, meaning he would be subject to waivers if the Rays tried to send him back to Durham. This likely gives Lobaton a slight lead in the competition, but not one that would prevent the team from looking outside of the organization for help. Already reports have surfaced linking the Rays to Oakland A’s catcher Kurt Suzuki. While Suzuki would represent an upgrade over Lobaton, but would come at a considerable cost; one I do not think would be a value for Tampa Bay.