If we assume Jake McGee will have a bullpen spot when the season opens, then the only question remaining is which right-hander with options will join him in the pen. Unless Cesar Cabral somehow beats Cesar Ramos out for the medium-leverage left-handed specialist gig, the bullpen will have flexibility to make way for two new additions early in the season.
Ostensibly, those additions will be J.P. Howell and Juan Cruz. Howell is likely to open the season on the disabled list –a move which should come the weekend before the season opens—thus allowing him to rehab in the minors without being exposed to the waiver wire. The rehab window is something like 20 days, but if Howell pulls a muscle in his ear, the team can get an additional 20 days, as they did with Rocco Baldelli in 2008. In other words, he might not report to a minor league team immediately, so as to provide an overlap with the estimated time of return window.
Cruz, on the other hand, could begin the season with the big league club, but it seems more likely that he will head to Durham for a few outings. The obvious comparison is to Joaquin Benoit, whom went to Durham and made eight appearances to demonstrate he could 1) pitch multiple innings and 2) pitch on zero days rest and was with the Rays by the end of April –or 22 games into the regular season. Maybe the team will see all it needs to in health and stuff from Cruz during spring, but taking the extra precaution shouldn’t have too much effect on the record.
The aforementioned maneuverability comes in who will hold bullpen spots for the stretch prior to Howell and Cruz’s arrivals. Ramos can be optioned and if McGee is in the pen, then the team can go without. If it’s Cabral, then he may experience a well-timed case of shoulder tendinitis in order to keep him away from Boston (literally, as he cannot be optioned without being sent to waivers and then offered back to his original team). It certainly would not be the first time a team uses the disabled list to hold onto a Rule 5 pick, but the catch is that the player must spend 90 days on the active roster before he can be sent down. Cabral could spend April in St. Pete, miss out on most of the season with a nasty shoulder strain and wrap the season up with the Rays in September and October, but still have the Rule 5 rules applied to him in 2012. For those reasons and many more (mostly performance-related), Ramos is likely to be the guy.
The righty is more of a mystery because just about every right-handed reliever on the 40-man roster fits the bill as well as a few off of it. Previously, I was unsure about Cory Wade’s option status, however it does appear that the Dodgers outrighted him in 2010 instead of optioning him. This is key to his options status, as optioning would have burned a year and removed Wade from the 25-man roster, whereas outrighting does not and removed Wade from the team’s 25- and 40-man rosters. Of course, if the Dodgers did option him, there is a chance the Rays could have received a fourth option year since he missed almost the entirety of last season. Either way, I do believe he’s about as fair game as a non-roster invitee can be at this moment.
The host of middle relief righties are in play. That means one of Rob Delaney, Mike Ekstrom, Dane De La Rosa, or Matt Bush could be on the Opening Day roster. Bush is the sexiest of the picks, with mid-90s velocity and a plus curve, but the team may choose against throwing him into the big leagues right away. Same with De La Rosa, thus leaving Ekstrom and Delaney as Wade’s biggest foes. Wade not having a 40-man roster spot is probably less relevant in this case than you would believe, although the team will need to clear a spot for Cruz eventually as well. Both needs could be addressed if the team returns Cabral (granting Wade admittance) and later on plays flip flop with Wade going down, Ekstrom going off, and Cruz coming up. In that scenario, the Rays would run the risk of losing Ekstrom, but similar middle relief types are readily available within the system and on the waiver wire.