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Tampa Bay Rays Roster Race: Isringhausen, Kennedy, Joyce

We've generally avoided roster projections around here because while we like to think we know what the Rays are thinking, we just don't know. However, as the number of players in camp dwindles down, the roster is shaping itself. Here are a few quick hits on some of the unsettled positions.

Fifth Starter-The competition started out with Mitch Talbot, David Price, Wade Davis, Carlos Hernandez, Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann. Each of the names were mentioned by Joe Maddon or Jim Hickey as contenders, but most of us knew all along it would come down to Hammel or Niemann. As we head into the home stretch of spring training, we are left with those two names. Hammel has been mediocre at best in his last two starts and Niemann had a very nice bounce back game last night after taking a beating from the Blue Jays. Niemann gave up a run on five hits in four innings. He struck out two batters and did not walk any. Hammel will get a chance to start on Saturday and if all goes well, I think that will be the clincher. Either way something has to give soon.

Final Bench Spot-Shawn Riggans, Willy Aybar, Other Gabe of the Day and? This is assuming Ben Zobrist is the temporary replacement for B.J. Upton, which it's looking more and more like everyday. That leaves us with a few names like Jon Weber, Ray Sadler and a few more Triple-A castoffs, but really it's down to Adam Kennedy and Matt Joyce. Right now, it seems like its Kennedy's job to lose.

With Ben Zobrist moonlighting as a centerfielder, the Rays will need a backup middle infielder. While Kennedy hasn't been a shortstop in the majors, he seems capable of at least faking it for a week or so. Joe Maddon has thrown Matt Joyce's name into the mix, but Joyce has just begun to participate in spring training and made his Rays debut in the field last night. Joyce will get the start in centerfield today, but I think Maddon and Co. just want to get a better look at him before sending him to Durham to join David Price, Reid Brignac and those fellas.

The one only hiccup I see with Kennedy is what will happen after Upton's return? Upton, who played five innings in a minor league game yesterday, would need a roster spot and it would seem likely that Kennedy would be DFA'd to make that happen. The other option would be keeping Kennedy and optioning Ben Zobrist to Durham.

If Kennedy shows the ability to play all the positions that Benzo can, then I could see this scenario shaking out. Kennedy is a plus defender, while Zobrist is not. If you believe in Zobrist's 2008 season then he would have the better bat, but the value of this position lies in defensive ability and Kennedy would have the advantage. I've come to like Zobrist a lot (must to R.J.'s dismay), but he has options and I would hate to lose a good defender in Kennedy and watch him go to a team like the Yankees. The Yankees are actively looking for a backup infielder and are contemplating Angel Berroa for that spot. Kennedy would be a clear upgrade over Berroa. This move would allow the Rays to keep both Kennedy and Zobrist in the organization and really allow Zobrist to get more playing time at different postitions. However, at this point  this is all just a bunch of speculation on my part. .

Bullpen-As I see it now there are four absolute locks: Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell, Dan Wheeler and Brian Shouse. Troy Percival has looked very good in his five innings of work and has allowed just one baserunner all spring. I wouldn't call him a lock because his arm could call off today, but he's as close as you can get. If he continues to show that he's healthy then he's your "closer." You'd also have to consider the loser of the fifth starter a lock as well. Without a trade, both Hammel and Niemann will be on the roster; one the starter and one the long reliever. That leaves you with one spot and a few names. I wrote about this yesterday and I think Joe Nelson has the last spot. Lance Cormier is nice, but Nelson has the better track record and the bigger salary.

Jason Isringhausen hit a little speed bump last night giving up a few hits and a run. I still feel it's a little premature to expect Isringhausen to make the opening day roster after elbow surgery this offseason. I think a few more weeks of work is more likely, but Isringhausen expressed yesterday that he is not willing to accept a minor league assignment, at least not right now.

The Rays face a tough decision with the former All-Star closer, who said he is unlikely to accept any kind of assignment, even short term, to the minor leagues. "No. ... I don't believe so. But that's right now," he said. "I'd have to sit down and talk with everybody."

I'm sure after a chat with Maddon and Andrew Friedman, Izzy will see that it's probably in everybody's best interest if he gets more work in either extended ST or Durham.

Personally, I'll be happy when the opening day roster is finally settled and we can concentrate on the actual games; 11 days.