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Contraction could help Tampa Bay

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2002

Baseball is a mess. The scheduled start of spring training is a month away, and the unresolved issues are staggering, topped by the glaring absence of a new labor agreement.

Baseball is a mess. The scheduled start of spring training is a month away, and the unresolved issues are staggering, topped by the glaring absence of a new labor agreement.

Despite a lack of time and the emergence of Donald Watkins as a potential buyer of the Twins, baseball officials -- thus far -- remain committed to contraction.

And for the Rays -- as long as they are not the team contracted, which they insist they won't be -- that could be a good thing.

The elimination of two financially weak teams could help the Rays in several ways.

They'd get both a larger share of centralized funds, such as national TV money, and a larger slice of the shared local revenues. That could mean an extra $6-million to $8-million a year under the current plan and, perhaps, double that if the new labor agreement, as proposed, provides for more significant revenue sharing.

There also would be an infusion of talent. The Rays likely would have a chance to add three major-league quality players.

And if they turned around and traded an expensive star such as Vladimir Guerrero, they could end up with five or six new faces. Plus, there would be quality prospects to add to the farm system.

If the Twins are eliminated, some shuffling would be needed to maintain an even number of teams in the American League, which could benefit the Rays, too.

Because the D'backs refuse to leave the NL, the Marlins -- assuming they don't end up on the endangered species list -- most likely would be moved to the AL East, requiring further realignment.

Some suggest Toronto would be moved to the AL Central, but the Rays could go. Though whatever rivalry they have with the Yankees might be diminished, the Rays would escape the high-rent AL East for a division with more comparable markets and payrolls and a better chance to be competitive.

Finally, if two teams are contracted this season (or next), the players union likely will seek a commitment from owners to not fold any other teams for a set number of years.

And that would be a good insurance policy for the Rays if things don't improve as quickly as they hope.

ON THE AGENDA: Owners are scheduled to meet this week in Phoenix with the chance for action on several major issues, the labor contract, contraction and related ownership transfers in Boston, South Florida and Montreal. Or they could do nothing. ... If MLB takes control of the Expos, the latest rumor is Frank Robinson will be appointed president and general manager. ... Watkins never got far in his pursuit of the Rays and reportedly told baseball officials Thursday that he had dropped that idea and is interested only in the Twins.

NOT-QUITE-AS-EXTENDED SPRING: The Rays are trying something different with their lower-level minor-leaguers this spring and will save money in the process.

Previously, players ticketed for the two short-season teams came to camp in early April (about a month after the rest of the minor-leaguers) and spent two months in extended spring training before beginning their season in June. (Last year, all minor-leaguers reported in mid March.)

This year, the 30-40 players headed to Princeton and Hudson Valley won't report until early May, giving them about three weeks of workouts.

MORE RAYS: Top outfield prospect Josh Hamilton, healthy and hitting for the first time since October, is eager to make up for the season he essentially lost to injury last year. "There's always something to prove," he said. "There's just a little more to prove because I missed all of last year." ... Salary arbitration figures will be exchanged Friday. The Rays have five eligible players: Doug Creek, Russ Johnson, Paul Wilson, Randy Winn and Esteban Yan.

AROUND THE DIAMOND: Dodgers pitching coach Jim Colborn describes Japanese left-hander Kazuhisa Ishii as "a scaled-down version of Randy Johnson. He's not a touchy-feely pitcher like Tom Glavine. He goes after the hitters." ... The Cardinals, meanwhile, signed Japanese outfielder So Taguchi even though general manager Walt Jocketty has never seen him play. Manager Tony La Russa immediately bought a language tape to learn Japanese. ... The Mets are talking about signing a pitcher (Pedro Astacio or James Baldwin), then trading for an outfielder. Bubba Trammell, Jeromy Burnitz, Gabe Kapler and Raul Mondesi are possibilities, with Ben Grieve somewhere down the list. ... Ex-Ray Dan Wheeler signed a minor-league deal with the Braves and former Rays MVP Quinton McCracken signed with Arizona. ... Bryan Rekar's deal with Kansas City is worth $650,000, with another $250,000 available in incentives.

MISCELLANY: Lou Piniella's celebrity golf tournament benefiting the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay is Monday at the Avila Golf and Country Club. Rays general manager Chuck LaMar is chairman. ... Legal maneuvers in Arizona could delay completion of a complex scheduled to be ready next spring for the Rangers and Royals.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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