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Everything needs to improve this year

For the Rays to compete, all facets of their game will have to be better than last season.

photo
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Rays leadoff hitter Jason Tyner says he knows he has to get on base more often.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 31, 2002


DURHAM, N.C. -- Every day for the past 6 1/2 weeks, the Rays have talked about how they're going to be improved this season.

Now they have to show it.

For the Rays to be better, there are specific things, such as cutting down errors, improving on-base percentage, not giving opponents extra outs, they have to do. And there are other things, little things like moving up runners, hitting cutoff men, holding opponents on base, they have to do better.

"We have to do everything to win," Greg Vaughn said. "Little things, big things, whatever."

The Rays open the season Tuesday at a disadvantage. They don't have the talent, the pure muscle, speed and athletic ability that most of their opponents have. They don't have the experience, the craftiness, the perspective of having been there and done that. They don't have the big names or the big money. (Their $34-million opening-day payroll is less than a third of the Yankees' and some $20-million less than what they opened with last year.)

Still, they think they can be better.

"We're a better team than we were a year ago," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "Even though we have a much lower payroll, if you compare the 25-man roster and what they're capable of doing now versus what we opened up with last year, I think we're breaking camp with a better club.

"But it's younger and less experienced, so for us to have a better season, the young players have got to step up and play like they are capable of playing."

Even if they do, the Rays are going to have to work for what they get. Because they don't have a potent offense, they are going to have to manufacture runs. Their pitchers are going to have to keep them in the games. And their defense has little margin for error.

"We're going to have to play pretty much harder than everyone else," Vaughn said. "It's going to be a grind."

They need to do the little things

Though they didn't make any significant changes to an offense that was the most impotent in the league, and though the nine players likely to start Tuesday hit fewer home runs together last year than Barry Bonds, the Rays say their offense will be better.

The improvement has to start at the top, where leadoff man Jason Tyner must improve a .311 on-base percentage, the result of only 15 walks in 420 plate appearances.

"I need to be an all-around better hitter, and I know that," Tyner said. "I didn't have to have someone tell me I need to walk more. I know I need to walk more. Last year I think I got so caught up in the moment, I was so excited to be playing every day at the major-league level, that I was just way too aggressive."

Manager Hal McRae would like to see the Rays improve their overall on-base percentage (.320) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (a brutal 1,116-to-456), but is more concerned with cutting out the strikeouts in key situations, such as with men in scoring position.

"The standards are probably too high for this group of guys," McRae said. "We like for the strikeout/base-on-balls ratio to be about even, but that's asking too much. We need to cut down on our strikeouts, but I'm more concerned with when we strikeout, not the number of strikeouts."

When they do get runners on base, the Rays have to be more efficient in moving them around and driving them in, executing a "small ball" offense since they aren't likely to hit a lot of long balls.

"We don't have a lineup packed with guys hitting 30-40 home runs, and when you don't have that you have to manufacture runs any way you can," centerfielder Randy Winn said. "Runs are more at a premium. You just can't sit around. We have to hit-and-run, take extra bases, move guys over and get them in."

Said McRae: "We can't win a heavyweight fight. We don't have the power to win a heavyweight fight. If we stay in the game with a chance to put something together and score a run or two to win the game, I think we'll be in good shape."

The power the Rays do get is likely to come mainly from Vaughn and Ben Grieve, who both struggled immensely last season. Vaughn, who hit .233 with 24 home runs and 82 RBIs, said, "I'm ready to do what I do." Grieve, who had a career-worst season of a .264 average, 11 homers and 72 RBIs and was dropped to sixth in the order, said: "I think it's a key, I guess, for me to turn things around in order to have some presence in the lineup."

Said LaMar: "They're much maligned, but they're better baseball players than what the press and what our fans have had a chance to see. And for us to do the things we want to do this year, those two veterans in the middle of the lineup have to step up and play how they're capable of playing."

'Pitching is the strength of this club'

Though none of their starters spent all of last season in a major-league rotation, and though only two of their seven relievers have spent a full season in the big leagues, the Rays say their pitching staff will be better.

"I don't think there's any question in anybody's mind, even with the Nick Bierbrodt situation, that we're starting the year with a better pitching staff," LaMar said. "But we have to stay healthy and we have to go out and perform like we're a better pitching staff."

The Rays made a huge gain in the second half of last season, improving their team ERA by more than 11/2 runs from the first half (5.63) to the second (4.12).

The improvement came after Tanyon Sturtze and Joe Kennedy settled into the rotation, after Paul Wilson rediscovered his form, after relievers Travis Phelps, Jesus Colome and Victor Zambrano got comfortable with their promotions, after Esteban Yan got accustomed to being the closer.

"We've got pitchers that can throw strikes and experienced some success last year," McRae said. "We have to continue to pitch aggressively like we did last year. We didn't do too well when we didn't attack the hitters."

The pitchers also need to do anything, and everything, they can to keep the Rays from getting blown out early.

"You can look at our lineup and realize we're not going to outslug anybody," Sturtze said. "As a pitching staff we need to keep the games close. We need to stay out of those big innings and try to just give up one or two runs or whatever just to give us a chance to win games."

Said LaMar: "Pitching is the strength of this club, and we have to pitch as advertised. The starters have to get us into the sixth or seventh inning and the bullpen has to be able to shut them down. We have to pitch like we're capable of pitching."

Great plays needed, too

Though they have infielders who lack range and outfielders who don't throw particularly well, and though their pitchers have had trouble in the past holding runners on, the Rays say their defense will be better.

After making a league-worst 139 errors, giving up a major league-worst 106 unearned runs, and giving away countless extra outs, it has to be.

The Rays worked on defense throughout the spring and are confident they will benefit from subtle changes. Second baseman Brent Abernathy said he has made improvements, and shortstop Chris Gomez is moving well. Tyner, Winn and Grieve have worked on throwing and positioning, the pitchers have controlled the running games, and cutoffs and relays were refined.

LaMar said they just need to be average: "We know we're not an outstanding defensive club, we just have to be able to make the routine plays.

McRae wants that and a little more: "We've got to make some great plays, too. The great plays get you off the field without the pitcher being perfect."

It's clear if the Rays are going to do better than 62 wins, they're going to have to earn it.

"It's used a lot, but in this situation, it's definitely true: We've got to go out and play a solid baseball game," Abernathy said. "We're not able to get away with an average game and come out with a win. It's not going to happen for us."

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