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From Little League to Major League

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TOBY HALL: The Rays catcher at age 4 (below) and at 26 (above).
The failed experiment with expensive free agents is history. The Rays have handed the reins to a group of hustling youngsters that was playing for free in front of cheering parents not so long ago.

 

[Times photos: Michael Rondou; inset photos are special to the Times]

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By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 31, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- It's fun to have the kids around. They might be a little loud and rambunctious at times, but they have the latest video games, listen to the coolest music, wear the hippest clothes, and talk about, like, the neatest stuff.

And on most days, they'll play hard, get dirty and have fun.

In their continuing efforts to reverse the aging process, as well as baseball economics, the Rays are again getting younger and less expensive. At some point this season, perhaps even by Tuesday's opener, they'll field the youngest, least experienced and least expensive team in the majors.

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photo   JASON TYNER: The Rays outfielder at age 13 (inset) and at 24 (above).

 


That means there will be some growing pains along the way.

It is hard enough to win in the American League. Harder with a payroll a third the size of some other teams. Even harder with a lineup loaded with twentysomething players who haven't done it before, many of whom, such as Toby Hall, Jason Tyner, Brent Abernathy and Joe Kennedy, who have yet to play a full season in the big leagues.

They don't necessarily know what it's like to play a 162-game schedule; don't necessarily realize how much more challenging it will be mentally, emotionally and physically; don't necessarily understand how much harder it is to play well for six months than six weeks, as they did at the end of last season.

But it's not like the Rays have any choice.

"There's only two ways you can build an expansion club," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "You either have to spend a tremendous amount of money or have a tremendous amount of patience. We're not in position to spend a tremendous amount of money, and we have yet to have time where our young players are ready to truly compete at the major-league level.

"So we're in the ugly stage of our development, if you will, and only patience will get us out of that."

Having set themselves back with an unsuccessful attempt two years ago to speed up the development process, the Rays say they now have a plan and they're going to stick to it. And this time they really, really mean it.

They're going to let the kids play. Hall, Tyner and Abernathy will be in the lineup every day. Kennedy is in the rotation. Travis Phelps, Jesus Colome and Victor Zambrano have key roles in the bullpen. Jared Sandberg, sent to Triple A last week, will be back eventually and so to, they hope, will Nick Bierbrodt.

Expect a lot of hustle and enthusiasm.

And a lot of growing pains along the way.

"We knew eventually we had to go with our group of young players, but I think it's a year earlier than I had anticipated and probably a year away from them truly being ready," LaMar said.

"But the plus is that we're doing what we do best, scouting and player development and promoting players from within, getting back on the track we set forth in this organization. And the fans appreciate the young players, not only because they're low salaried, but because they come to the park with an enthusiasm that sometimes the veteran players don't have."

The combination of homegrown future stars and hustle might sell for a while, but eventually there has to be progress made toward winning.

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BRENT ABERNATHY: The Rays infielder at age 10 (inset) and at 24 (above).

 

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For now, the Rays need to put aside their dreams of becoming heavyweight bullies like the Yankees. Instead, they'll settle for being pesky brats like the Twins and A's.

As he builds the Rays, LaMar suggests those are his models, two teams with similar budget limitations and strong commitments to scouting and player development that have risen above their prescribed mediocrity to become contenders.

"We're not where they are because we have yet to prove which of our players will be front-line impact players," LaMar said. "We've proved we have a nucleus of young players who have the talent to play at the major-league level, but what Minnesota and Oakland have are four-five players on each club that are impact, all-star type players.

"We hope we're where those clubs were two to three years ago, struggling for wins and hoping to build that nucleus. In those two or three years, Eric Chavez, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Miguel Tejada surfaced to be All-Star caliber players in Oakland. Torii Hunter, Cristian Guzman, Eric Milton and Corey Koskie became All-Star type players in Minnesota.

"In the next two to three years, will Josh Hamilton, Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, Dewon Brazelton, Toby Hall, Jesus Colome, Joe Kennedy become All-Star type players?

"If they do, we'll be on the same track."

The most important thing now, Twins general manager Terry Ryan said, is being able to wait patiently for them to develop.

"One thing you have to show when you go that route is a lot of patience," Ryan said. "You're going to have some lean years. There's no better indication than to look at our record in the late 90s (when they won 68, 70, and 63 games in successive seasons) and in 2000, when we won 69 games.

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[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
General manager Chuck LaMar, left, and manager Hal McRae hope to see several of the Rays’ young starters develop into ‘‘front-line, impact players.’’
"In 2000 and 2001 I think we had 10-15 rookies on the team at the same time. Patience is going to be needed. You can't get off your plan. If you got that route, you have to stay with that route. Fans and ownership -- especially ownership -- have to realize you're going to go through some tough times if you take that route like other small markets do."

The key to success, Ryan said, is knowing what you're doing.

"You have to make smart baseball decisions on the guys you put money in, the guys you give multi-year contracts to, and you have to get lucky with health," he said. "Evaluating your own talent is requisite to go that route. You have to be able to evaluate your own talent."

Even then success can be fleeting. Small-market teams that build with youth tend to have cycles of success. They struggle, they get better, and they have a small window to win until the key players get too expensive to keep.

"You'd like to be competitive year in and year out, unfortunately when you go the route we've taken it takes a while for the young players to develop. Young players pushed to the big leagues, no matter how athletic they are, still struggle because it takes a while when you get to the big leagues to get comfortable and get established."

When it does happen, it can happen quickly. Ryan's Twins went from 69-93 (with a payroll of $16.5-million) in 2000 to 85-77 (with a payroll of $27.5-million) and the middle of the AL Central race last season. This year, they are considered by some a favorite to win the division (with a payroll of $40-million, about $6-million more than the Rays).

"It takes until they have three or four years of service, then you see them more confident," Ryan said. "They just have a little different look about them, their body language, how they carry themselves. It all comes with confidence. Thinking you belong here is half the battle."

Rays manager Hal McRae has seen it before. He knows how hard it is for young players to learn how to win on a losing team, knows how much more difficult it is to go through tough times in April and May and June when "you can't see the finish line," knows the young players will have to be both coddled and criticized through these times.

"That's what they're looking at this year, the challenge of 162," McRae said. "It could be tougher, but it doesn't have to be."

McRae expects the Rays to play in his image -- aggressive, hard-charging, without fear. It is a style that fits the personnel and the personality of having a younger squad.

"When you can get guys to bust their a-, it's a compliment to the manager," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "And you certainly get respect from other teams."

The players just want to get on the field and see what they can do.

"Most of us are naive to what has happened here in St. Pete the past four years," Abernathy said. "We don't care what happened in the past. All we care about is winning ballgames in 2002, and we can do that if we give our 100 percent best effort. You have to start believing at some point in time that you can win games."

That's another thing about kids. They can dream.

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