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Don't let the Rays' bright future blind you

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 10, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- His team is on the field in front of him, but Chuck LaMar is staring at the fan standing beside him.

The man, disregarding accepted ballpark decorum, has come to LaMar's seat behind the first-base dugout. He inquires whether the Rays general manager can arrange for Troy O'Leary to sign a foul ball the fan is holding.

Your first hope is to safely cover the ears of a youngster sitting nearby. Your next hope is for someone to cover your ears.

Then, all at once, a strange thing occurs. LaMar graciously accepts the ball and tells the fan he will do what he can.

Welcome to Year 5 in the life of the Rays.

'Tis the season of patience.

This is what the Rays will preach in 2002. They will request your patience one day and require your faith the next.

For, you see, the influx of youngsters on the roster has bred a misconception of sorts. The future is not at hand. It still flickers somewhere off in the distance.

Yes, the Rays have wisely grown younger.

But, no, they have not yet gotten stronger.

For all the enthusiasm created by the rookies and underachievers at the end of last season, the best is yet to come. Which means, in the interim, you still can expect the worst on quite a few days.

Ask scouts from other teams which position players they would covet when Tampa Bay completes its 25-man roster, and the first response is the same:

Toby Hall.

The second response is also predictable:

Silence.

This does not mean the Rays are devoid of quality prospects. It just suggests the impact players still are a year or two or three away. Carl Crawford has the carriage of a star. If his back problems can be solved, Josh Hamilton will be special. Rocco Baldelli could be, too.

The future is not here. It's in Orlando. And Durham. And wherever else the Rays minor-leaguers will scatter at the end of spring.

Which is why LaMar and the rest of the Rays brass are demonstrating the cool patience of preschool teachers with a closet full of Ritalin. The future looks bright if you can figure out in which direction to stare.

The Rays will have talent in the dugout this season, it just will not be the type to make you shake your head in awe.

Left-handers Joe Kennedy and Nick Bierbrodt and relievers Victor Zambrano and Jesus Colome have the ability to be better than the average pitcher. Outfielder Jason Tyner might become a decent leadoff hitter. Second baseman Brent Abernathy can be a solid player.

In other words, the Rays have some fine supplemental parts. A solid core of role players. A team of Pips, waiting for Gladys Knight to hit town.

LaMar says this is as it should be. He said the five-year plan he laid out to ownership in the franchise's beginnings has much in common with the reality of today.

Back then, he predicted the Rays would have the game's smallest payroll by the end of the fifth season and they are on the way. He predicted they would have a core group of young players upon which to build and that is accurate, too, although the degree might be debatable.

As plans go, it was a dandy. Except when held up against the blueprints used by Florida and Arizona. The Marlins and Diamondbacks managed to squeeze World Series rings and pennants into their five-year plans.

Okay, so it is not entirely fair to measure Tampa Bay against those models. Arizona and Florida outspent the Rays on free agents and both clubs have suffered serious cash-flow problems as a result.

Of course, that excuse would sound better had the Rays also not acquired a haphazard collection of veterans in a desperate attempt to buy time, not to mention good will, among fans. Ownership lost tens of millions of dollars on those deals, and that's not even the greatest impact.

When Vinny Castilla, Juan Guzman, Fred McGriff and Gerald Williams left town, they brought no legitimate prospects in return.

"If you're not prepared for the consequences of failure," outgoing chief operating officer John McHale said, "then spending a lot of money on free agents is a route to disaster."

Which brings us back to today. Back to a team with the right concept, but the wrong calendar.

It would not be wrong to have expected more by the fifth season. Maybe a few more pieces in place, a few more victories in the background.

Instead we are asked to make do with what we have and to exercise patience along the way.

Tampa Bay is not the first franchise to go this route. If you can find an Expos fan, inquire about their five-year plan. Montreal has been dedicated to player development since 1969 and still has not seen a World Series.

So we accept the Rays are not going anywhere fast.

And, somehow, that does not seem so bad.

For we already know the look of a team going nowhere fast.

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