With less than a week remaining in spring training, the Rays have very few questions about the opening day roster. At last count 23 of the 25 spots are pretty much accounted for with one positional and one bullpen spot remaining.
With Matt Joyce likely headed to the disabled list, Hank Blalock seems to be the favorite over Reid Brignac for the final positional spot. This has more to do with contract/option status than anything else. Sending Brignac to Durham allows the Rays to keep everyone in the organization without help from waivers.
As for the bullpen, there are now two remaining names for the one spot: Personal favorite, Joaquin Benoit along with Mike Ekstrom. Personally, I believe the spot belongs to Benoit whether he wins it outright in spring, or claims it after a few weeks of work in extended spring training or Durham
At full strength, Benoit is a proven 3.5-4.00 fielding independent pitching (FIP) pitcher. The key for Benoit is proving he is at full strength. After missing all of 2009, Benoit has received good reviews this spring in terms of velocity and stuff; however, that doesn't mean he's ready to assume a full work load in the bullpen come opening day.
Benoit pitched two innings yesterday (5 strikeouts, 9 swinging strikes according to ESPN.com), which is a good sign, but he has yet to pitch on back to back days. The Rays and Joe Maddon love pitchers who can bounce back from one day and pitch the next.
In fact, Maddon led all American League managers in relievers used on consecutive days in 2009; we saw this occurrence 139 times last season. Benoit may need some extra time to prove he can handle that task, if the Rays feel it is something they need to see before handing him the job.
If that is the case, then former San Diego Padres reliever, Mike Ekstrom would hold the seat warm for Benoit. Ekstrom, 27, was claimed off of waivers by the Rays this offseason after spending his career in the Padres organization. He began his career as a starter, but has moved to the bullpen full-time.
He has some major league experience; however, it is just a 28 inning sample. He does have decent track record as a reliever in the minors, and held his Triple-A FIP to 3.06 in 2009. He'll likely give you an average strike outs per nine(K/9), but is a ground ball pitcher who induced around 60% ground balls at the minor league level last year.
As a former starter, he has the ability to go multiple innings per appearance. On the other hand, he worked on consecutive days only once in his brief major league stint. Because he is already a member of the 40-man roster, and has minor league options, he would be a perfect stand-in for the Rays if the Benoit situation plays out like the scenario above.
In the end, I stand by my opinion that regardless of who holds the roster spot on April 6, it truly belongs to Joaquin Benoit. The question is does he take the spot now? Or at a time to be determined later?