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Third-base questions linger for Rays

Third-base questions linger for Rays

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- The reassignment of top prospect Evan Longoria to Triple-A Durham, coupled with a lingering sore hamstring from Willy Aybar, has third base once again a forefront of Rays' discussions.

Although Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said, "things will crystallize on a number of fronts" on Friday, he acknowledged that the Opening Day lineup has not been finalized.

Manager Joe Maddon said that Aybar was sent to a Minor League game on Thursday to get at-bats, and was evaluated by head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield.

"It's more of a situational thing," said Maddon. "We want him to hit the ball and run, not run hard, but just see how it feels."

Aybar was 1-for-2 with two walks, and reported no setbacks following the game.

The 25-year-old has been sidelined since Saturday with left hamstring soreness, a problem which has been thrust into the spotlight since Longoria's reassignment following Monday's game.

If Aybar is unable to start on Opening Day in Baltimore next Monday, the Rays may have to do some juggling regarding their final 25-man roster.

With utility infielder Ben Zobrist on the disabled list until at least April 5, the club's leading options are Joel Guzman and Elliot Johnson.

Guzman was considered a top prospect when he was acquired from the Dodgers in July 2006, but has yet to have a breakout season, spending most of last year in Durham before being recalled in mid-August.

Maddon acknowledged that it was "possible" for Guzman to be the Rays' Opening Day second baseman, noting his improved at-bats and technique at the plate.

"When you get the young Latin players," Maddon said, "sometimes you have to wait a little bit longer for them to get acclimated to the culture -- being here, playing here, language, etc, just knowing they belong. He's still considered a very strong prospect. ... It's all about the bat with him."

Guzman is batting .225 with an on-base percentage of .279 this spring.

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Another emerging prospect is Johnson, who is batting .440 with eight RBIs and a .482 OBP. It hasn't gone unnoticed by the Rays.

Friedman called Johnson's performance "an extremely impressive spring", and hailed the 24-year-old for his all-around effort and athleticism.

Primarily a second baseman, Johnson has also seen time in center field, at shortstop and at third base, where he made his first start Thursday.

"He's taken to different positions," Friedman said. "He's playing with a lot of confidence, and it's good to see."

If none of the in-house solutions seem to jell, the Rays could potentially seek help elsewhere, via a trade. While club policy prohibits the Rays to discuss players who are not members of the organization, Friedman was willing to shed light on the possibility.

"We will be aggressive if something presents itself to make us better," he said.

If not, Friedman has confidence in the players already in Rays uniform.

"We expect Aybar will be ready," he said. "If not, we feel we have the depth to compensate."

The question that remains is which bench player that depth will be.

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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