One of the more interesting story lines of this offseason, to me at anyway, will be the competition for the last remaining bench spot*.
*This is barring any major trades or signings before opening day
The Rays came into 2009 with a fairly strong bench consisting of Ben Zobrist, Gabe Kapler/Gross, Willy Aybar, and Shawn Riggans. Although he was already getting semi-regular at bats, Ben Zobrist was thrust into the starting lineup when Aki Iwamura went down with a knee injury in late May. That injury forced the Rays to call up players like Reid Brignac and Joe Dillon to warm the now vacant bench spot. Shawn Riggans suffered his usual injury set back which allowed Michel Hernandez a roster spot until the Zaunbie Nation came to Tampa Bay. The bench was obviously stretched out more than the Rays would have liked last season but it did an admirable job. The options for 2010 will offer a slightly different cast of characters.
-Perez has long been one of my favorite Ray players, but that’s been more for his talents off the field than on it. A useful reserve outfielder for most teams, Perez may be forced out of a roster spot with the Rays thanks to a likely Matt Joyce/Ben Zobrist platoon in right field. Perez would be better served playing every day in Triple A and working on the next great American novel instead of wasting away at the end of the Rays bench.
-The probable shortstop of the future, Brignac does have an option left and would no doubt be better off playing full time at Durham than riding the pine in St. Pete. Unless the Rays trade Jason Bartlett I don't see Brignac beginning the year on the Rays bench.
-Kapler is an interesting candidate. He doesn't yet have a contract for 2010, but the Rays would be in need of a right handed outfield bat coming off the bench. Kapler earned $1m last season and did job very well, putting up an OPS of .931 against left handed pitching. If Kapler is willing to accept another contract of $1m, or maybe a little less, I think the Rays have to seriously consider bringing him back.
Aybar will undoubtably be a member of the Rays' bench in 2010 as the primary backup at 3B/1B. Even though Aybar rated uncharacteristically poor at every defensive position he played in 2009 he isn't a liability with the glove and his bat more than holds its own. The addition of Sean Rodriguez will drastically cut into the amount of games Aybar sees at second base next season. His salary of $1.35m is very reasonable for the production he provides.
The main piece in the Scott Kazmir trade, Rodriguez will likely be the platoon partner of Ben Zobrist at second base and is able to backup Jason Bartlett at shortstop. He'll strike out enough to get the local fans to boo him, but his versatility and power bat should be enough to assure himself of a bench spot in 2010.
I see Matt Joyce being a part of what I'm calling the Ben Zobrist Platoon menage a trois. Joyce starts in right field against right handed pitchers while Zobrist starts at 2B. Against southpaws Joyce would sit in favor of the switch hitting Zobrist, while Rodriguez would play second base. Joyce spent most of 2009 in AAA and played well enough to earn a promotion, not to mention the fact that Gabe Gross and Gabe Kapler are not likely to return.
The plan for a starting catcher is still up in the air, so I'm even going to begin to speculate on who the backup will be, but obviously there will be one on the roster.
I'm not sure which direction the team will go, but I'm strongly in favor of the re-signing of Gabe Kapler. They could go with a four or five man bench next season depending on how they decide to structure the bullpen. If they choose a four man bench I think Rodriguez, Aybar, Kapler, and Catcher would be the best fit to begin the season. If they go five then I would lean toward Fernando Perez to fill the last spot, if only for his pinch running abilities. No matter who they choose or how they structure it, the Rays will once again have a cost effective and productive bench in 2010.