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Age issue provides interesting angles

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- So far, despite rumors, there have been no birthday cakes waiting in the Rays clubhouse for Jesus Colome, no balloons for Wilmy Caceres, no choruses of Happy Birthday or Feliz Cumpleanos for Ramon Soler.

ST. PETERSBURG -- So far, despite rumors, there have been no birthday cakes waiting in the Rays clubhouse for Jesus Colome, no balloons for Wilmy Caceres, no choruses of Happy Birthday or Feliz Cumpleanos for Ramon Soler.

The revelation that all three are several years older than originally reported is being treated a serious matter.

The same thing is happening to many, and, eventually, probably all teams. There isn't much they can do about it but to say all that matters is how well the player performs.

In some cases, that will be enough. While the Rays may have preferred for Colome to be 21 or 22, he still is very much a dominating pitcher at 24 with a 100-mph fastball and a bright future.

But for others, even though the Rays say they won't punish the players or judge them differently, there will be repercussions.

When the Rays gave up pitcher Mickey Callaway to get Caceres from Anaheim, they believed they were acquiring a 23-year-old who would compete now for a backup infield position with the chance to develop in the next several years into a starting shortstop.

Instead they have a 28-year-old who should be in the prime of his career but has played just a half-season of Triple-A ball.

In Soler, the Rays thought they had such a prized 20-year-old infield prospect that they put him on the 40-man roster after a good but not great season at advanced Class-A Bakersfield.

Now, they have a 24-year-old who has a .251 career average and has yet to play his first game at the Double-A level.

Given the two-plus week delay in the arrival of pitcher Enger Veras, the Rays are likely to find out that he is not the promising 20-year-old prospect they thought he was. The same could be true for dozens of minor-league players as well.

The result?

These suddenly older players won't have as much time to prove they can play.

"If they produce on the field, then this is an exercise in getting their birth dates right," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "If they don't produce on the field, then maybe their timetable is a little shorter.

"If you're a young player and you're found to be three or four years older, maybe that speeds up the process that they need to show us they can play at the major-league level."

Future trades also could be affected, as teams likely will seek to better document ages before making deals.

The Rays are unlikely to seek recourse from the Angels unless they thought Anaheim officials knew Caceres' real age. Angels general manager Bill Stoneman sounded as surprised as anyone: "He might get the cup for the biggest lie."

PLENTY OF INK: Being sidelined with a back injury can be frustrating, and Josh Hamilton has been passing the time at the tattoo parlor. Hamilton, at last count, has 27 tattoos, covering both calves and arms, and most of his chest, stomach and back. "I get a discount," he said.

MONEY MATTERS: Tanyon Sturtze was the Rays' most consistent starter for much of last season, won a team-high 11 games and was voted the team MVP by beat writers. For his efforts, he got a raise of $57,500 -- from $237,500 to $295,000.

At a time when the average major-league salary is more than $2-million, his raise seems like spare change -- or a little more than what Alex Rodriguez gets, on average, for one at-bat.

But in the Rays salary structure for players with fewer than three years of major-league service, Sturtze did pretty well. His $295,000 matched what Miguel Cairo got in 2000 as the largest salary given to a player in that service-time category, and with $20,000 in incentives he'll end up with the largest package.

Sturtze's payoff comes next season, when he will be eligible for arbitration and could get $1.5-million or more.

OWNERSHIP ISSUES: Sniping between the team's general partners seems to have quieted in the past few months, and apparently for a good reason. Word is the partners are generally pleased with the direction the team has taken under chief operating officer John McHale.

NO RESPECT: The Rays are one of five teams not scheduled for national TV appearances on Fox or ESPN. The company isn't good: the Twins, Expos, Blue Jays and Brewers. ... The Sporting News dropped its correspondent for the Rays, along with the Marlins and Rockies, because of a lack of traffic on its team Web pages. Good thing that's not the criteria for contraction.

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