PORT CHARLOTTE — The Tampa Bay Rays entered spring training more than a month ago with three simple questions that appeared to have three simple answers.
• Find a fifth starter to replace Jeremy Hellickson for two months while Hellickson rehabs from elbow surgery? Easy. Jake Odorizzi, the only pitcher ready for the job.
• Find the last player for the bench? No problem, just choose one of the three candidates: Wilson Betemit, Jayson Nix or Logan Forsythe.
• Find the seventh member of the bullpen? Go with Josh Lueke, who is out of options.
But with less than two weeks to Opening Day, the answers to those questions have become complicated.
Erik Bedard, signed the day camp opened, joined Odorizzi in the competition for the final spot in the rotation. But one week into the Grapefruit League schedule, Maddon announced Cesar Ramos also was competing for the fifth spot.
Outfielder Brandon Guyer, who is out of options, might not make the team if the Rays decide to designate second baseman Ben Zobrist as the fifth outfielder and keep an additional infielder on the roster. But then the Rays risk losing Guyer on waivers. Guyer, hampered by injuries the past two seasons that kept him off the major-league roster, is healthy and playing well this spring.
“All of a sudden his mental attitude is catching up to his physical side,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He's always been physically talented, but now he believes he can play here, so now you got this nice-looking baseball player.”
The Rays are likely looking for two arms for the bullpen since it doesn't appear Juan Carlos Oviedo will be ready by Opening Day. They could be looking for a third reliever if Ramos wins the rotation spot.
Maddon said the bullpen will be the toughest decision.
“Who's not throwing the ball well? And not only throwing the ball, who among them does not deserve to be in the big leagues? I don't know,” Maddon said. “We've even sent guys out already that can pitch in the big leagues, so this is unique for me. I'm not just saying that. It's really, really tough.”
Lueke dominated at Triple-A Durham in 2013. The Rays believe his fastball is major league-quality. Like Guyer, Lueke could be lost through waivers if he doesn't make the team. Brandon Gomes and Brad Boxberger, acquired from San Diego in the Alex Torres trade, both have options. Mark Lowe, the other candidate, signed a minor-league contract.
Gomes has yet to allow a run this spring. Lowe and Boxberger have allowed one earned run each.
None of the four could fill the role of the long man if Ramos makes the rotation. That job could fall to Bedard.
Maddon said the team is close to settling on a fifth starter. Bedard has had the tougher spring, but Maddon said the decision will not be based on spring performance. Maddon also said he likes Bedard's resume, and the 35-year-old left-hander has made 215 big-league starts since 2002.
Keeping Bedard, who has an opt-out clause in his minor-league deal, would send Ramos back to the bullpen and Odorizzi back to Triple-A, where Odorizzi can spend more time working on his new pitch — a change-up/splitter he calls “The Thing.”
Picking one (if they keep Guyer) or two (if they don't) from the mix of Nix, Forsythe and Betemit won't be easy.
Forsythe is being groomed as a super utility player, adding shortstop and left field to his resume with right field to come at some point during the next two weeks.
Maddon has praised Nix, saying on several occasions that every manager would want a player like Nix on his bench.
Betemit, who reported late because of visa issues in his native Dominican, has impressed Maddon with the quality of his at-bats.
Betemit could have the edge because as a switch-hitter, he gives Maddon another left-handed bat on the bench, and because he has the most experience of the three at first base.
Sean Rodriguez is the backup first baseman, but he has an option remaining, which might come into play and further cloud the picture as the Rays settle on the 25-man Opening Day roster.