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McRae set to build on Rays' momentum

Establishment is the key as much of the team's youth is finding its way to the majors.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Hal McRae knows what he wants his Rays to do when they open spring training Friday: hustle, run a lot and get the fundamentals right.

It's how they go about it that he will be most concerned with.

"Attitude is first and foremost," McRae said. "They played well last year but we don't want them to become complacent and just assume, "Since I played well last year I'm going to play well this year.' It doesn't work that way."

Because the Rays officially turned to the future last summer, promoting 11 prospects to the big leagues, team officials say this spring finally could be the start of something.

"I think it has a chance to be as exciting a spring training as we've ever had," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "We have a nucleus of young players, some of whom will turn out to be cornerstones of this organization, and they're here."

Playing with enthusiasm and determination, the kids were all right, sparking the Rays to a 35-39 record in the second half of the season, 24-23 in the final 47 games, the second-best plus-.500 stretch in team history.

Now the challenge is to make sure they keep it up.

At the end of last season, McRae told the players that they must continue to get better to keep having success and that no one should take anything for granted. He plans to make it a central theme throughout the spring.

"They come in knowing they can compete, but it's not going to be easy," McRae said. "We're going to do the things we did last year, but we have to become better than we were last year. We can't stay the same.

"You either get better or you get worse. Nobody stays the same. So we've got to get better."

LaMar said he is not concerned about a drop-off in effort from the young players, but he and his staff will be on the lookout for any warning signs.

"Will our young players truly elevate their game to establish themselves not only individually but to establish us as a competitive club? That possibility is there, that we establish ourselves as competitive truly for the first time," LaMar said.

"There's also the possibility that they'll come in and say they did pretty well last year and rest on whatever laurels there are for playing well in the second half last year, and they don't become as good and we don't become as good. It's something that we'll be in touch with."

Otherwise, the Rays don't have a lot of questions, not for a team that lost 100 games, anyway. They need to determine if Jared Sandberg is ready to be the everyday third baseman, sort out a congested outfield, pick a fifth starter and find a couple of middle men for the bullpen.

They'll have 61 players in camp -- the fewest in their five years -- and McRae said he'll want to trim the roster quickly so the players truly competing for jobs get the necessary playing time. "There's a lot of guys we need to see," he said.

In his first spring as the Rays manager, McRae plans to keep the players active and working hard.

"It's going to be a good workout," he said. "We're going to do a lot of running. We're going to hit the fundamentals hard. We're going to make sure that when we leave spring training we've solved some of the problems we had last year. And we'll stay out here as long as it takes to get it right. If the schedule reads we're done at 1:30, we might be here until 2:30. If the schedule says we're doing fundamentals for 20 minutes, we might do it for 40 minutes.

"We're going to get it done and we're going to do it right."

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