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Rays pull several surprises

Roster appears set with 12 pitchers, O'Leary cut and Sandberg, Huff to minors.

By MARC TOPKIN and KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 26, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays have tentatively set their 25-man opening-day roster, and it looks a little different than expected after five weeks of spring training.

Barring injury, an unexpected trade or a late change of plans, the roster will include four new faces, pitchers Steve Kent and Jorge Sosa, infielder Jason Smith and outfielder Jason Conti; and two old ones, Bobby Smith and Wilson Alvarez, and apparently won't include Aubrey Huff, Felix Martinez or Jared Sandberg.

After several meetings over the past few days, Rays officials revealed three decisions Monday that foreshadowed their plans for who will be in uniform for the opener April 2.

They released Troy O'Leary for financial reasons, giving the fifth outfield spot to Conti; they said Sandberg would be reassigned to the minors after today's game, making Russ Johnson the starting third baseman; and they said they would keep 12 pitchers, creating a spot for Sosa, a converted outfielder who started pitching last season, and eliminating one for another reserve, such as Huff or Martinez.

"We're pretty set," manager Hal McRae said.

The key decision appears to be the one by the front office to keep the 12th pitcher; McRae originally wanted 11.

"The toughest decision really was when I was told what we were going to do," McRae said. "The dynamics changed. The numbers work now."

The rest of the roster, McRae said, "worked itself out."

With catchers Toby Hall and John Flaherty set, here is a look at the other areas of the roster:

Pitching

The seven-man bullpen will include two pitchers, Sosa and Steve Kent, who haven't pitched above Class A. Both are Rule 5 draft picks, meaning they must be kept on the big-league roster all season or be exposed to waivers and offered back to Seattle, their original club.

General manager Chuck LaMar acknowledged that Sosa, a 24-year-old right-hander, is a prospect, but he said the Rays are intrigued by his talent and can't afford to not take a chance.

"You can't pass it up," LaMar said. "He's a guy you carry because you think his future is ahead of him and you think he has potential to be a major-league pitcher."

LaMar said Kent, a 23-year-old left-hander, is ready to help now.

"Steve Kent is not your normal Rule 5 draft (pick)," LaMar said. "He's come in here and established himself as a major-league left-handed pitcher."

Once Nick Bierbrodt developed a severe loss of control, the rotation seemed set. The Rays will start with Tanyon Sturtze, Paul Wilson and Joe Kennedy and end with Ryan Rupe and Alvarez, who missed the past two seasons with shoulder problems.

Infield

Once the Rays decided Sandberg wasn't viable offensively to play every day in the majors, the rest of the infield decisions seemed straightforward.

Johnson, a top-notch utilityman, will be the primary third baseman, with the versatile Smiths filling the utility roles. Jason will be used at shortstop, second base and possibly at third and Bobby primarily will fill in at first and third and occasionally in the outfield.

"I consider the Smith guys as swing guys," McRae said.

Johnson, who hasn't played more than 85 games in a major-league season, will get most of the playing time at third. "I know he's going to need rest, so we'll see how it goes and I'll try to keep him well rested," McRae said. "My concern is to not play him too much."

Johnson, 29, is excited about McRae giving him his first opportunity to start a season as an everyday player. "I'm going to play my guts out for him," Johnson said. "If he's got that much confidence in me, I've definitely got that much in me. I'm going to go play."

LaMar said the Rays rushed Sandberg to the majors last season, so he shouldn't be considered a bust. "We came into spring training hoping he might be ready, but realistically it didn't work out so it's best for him to go down and continue to get his at-bats and continue to develop," he said.

Sandberg, who hit .184, was disappointed but took the news well.

"I'm not going to worry about what happened the last three weeks here," he said. "I'm just going to go down there and play baseball the way it should be played."

Huff started 71 games at third in 2001 and worked hard during the offseason to improve his conditioning and defense, but it apparently wasn't enough. He likely will play first base at Triple-A Durham.

"He needs to improve defensively," McRae said. "He has a good bat. ... We've always known that. But his decision has to be whether he wants to be a two-way player or a one-way player."

Still to be determined is the fate of Martinez, the former starting shortstop who is out of options and has been sidelined with mild patella tendinitis in his left knee.

Outfield

With Jason Tyner, Randy Winn, Ben Grieve and Greg Vaughn in place, the competition was for the fifth spot, and Conti was a better, and less expensive, fit.

O'Leary, 32, hit .250 in 12 spring games and did "everything we expected him to do," LaMar said. But the nine-year big-league veteran was going to make $750,000, with a similar amount available in incentives, and the Rays couldn't afford to add to their approximately $34-million payroll. By releasing him Monday, they gave him a better chance to catch on with another team.

"I think he still has value at the major-league level as a platoon outfielder and as an experienced left-handed hitter off the bench with his kind of makeup," LaMar said. "But the way our club sets up and the finances of the club ... "

Conti, 27, was acquired in July from Arizona and is a strong defensive player. He was out of options, meaning the Rays would risk losing him on waivers if they tried to send him to the minors.

Final cuts are expected to take place Wednesday.

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