Vaughn has earned a chance to recover
© St. Petersburg Times
ST. PETERSBURG -- He has been awful. You know it, he knows it and the rest of the American League certainly knows it.
Through the season's first four weeks, Greg Vaughn has been the worst player in the majors.
The point is hardly worth arguing. He isn't required to play defense and has been unable to provide even a whiff of offense. This makes him somewhat less valuable than a rag of pine tar.
Some players struggle to hit their weight. For Vaughn, it would be an improvement if he could hit Kate Moss' weight.
The scoreboard showed he was batting .118 when he came to the plate in the eighth inning Thursday afternoon. He was hit by a pitch, making it his most successful at-bat in nearly a week.
Which brings us to this point:
Vaughn must remain in the Rays lineup.
Based on the ugly noises rising from the Tropicana Field bleachers, and maybe even from the owner's box, this is not the people's choice.
They see a high-priced player who appears to have lost his way and seem prepared to tell him where to go.
That reaction is normal. It is based on growing frustration and dimming hope. It also is premature and shortsighted.
If Vaughn is hitting .118 on June 1, the Rays should hold a lottery to see which fan gets to drive him to the airport.
But April 26 is too soon to give up on Vaughn.
Wait, you say. The Rays once gave up on Kevin Stocker in May, right? Yes, but Stocker had about $2-million remaining on his contract. The Rays owe Vaughn close to $18-million for this year and next.
Hold on, you shout. The Rays dumped Vinny Castilla last May, didn't they? Yes, but Castilla had essentially rolled into a fetal position by then.
Vaughn's case is different for a number of reasons.
In the most practical sense, the Rays still are hoping to unload his salary. If they bench him, they might as well have the $18-million forwarded to the bank account of his choice.
No general manager is going to swing a deal for a high-priced player who is sitting on the bench for a losing team.
Tampa Bay's only hope for getting out from under Vaughn's contract is if he gets hot and some contender gets desperate. (For an example of this phenomenon, please refer to Chicago's trade for Fred McGriff in July.)
Vaughn, 36, also deserves a little more slack than, say, Bobby Smith. Four years ago, he hit 50 home runs. Three years ago, he hit 45. Will Vaughn ever return to that level? Probably not. But you do not ignore a dozen years of success because of a 20-game slump.
"I'm not overly concerned," said manager Hal McRae, who said he might give Vaughn a day off to relax but is not ready to bench him. "It's still too soon. It's just a slump."
Rays officials say Vaughn's bat speed appears fine. He is relatively healthy. Other than the fact he has fewer extra-base hits than Kevin Brown and as many RBIs as the Brewers rotation, there is no reason to believe Vaughn cannot regain a bit of his former glory.
Herein lies the greatest difference between the slump of this veteran and the poor starts of Castilla and Gerald Williams last season.
When Castilla struggled, he began to mope. There are those in the organization who believe he simply quit trying.
When Williams struggled, he became indignant. A strange character even in the best of times, he became disruptive last summer.
Unlike those players, Vaughn is not more trouble than he is worth. No one cares more, no one plays harder. The clubhouse does not suffer when Vaughn's numbers are down.
"We signed Greg Vaughn not only on the basis of his outstanding record as an offensive player, but also because of the type of player he has been throughout his career," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "There is no quit in Greg Vaughn. He has never shown it before in his career and I don't think we'll see it in him in the future."
As much as his strikeouts might irritate you, they devastate him. He has made no excuses (other than a tiff with an umpire) and has apologized time and again for his shortcomings.
He would gladly welcome a change of scenery, but he refuses to ask for his release or even talk about the possibility of changing uniforms.
"I still have the greatest job in the world. You're not going to hear me complain," Vaughn said. "If my career ends tomorrow, I'll walk away and I'll be grateful. I've played a lot of years and I'm thankful for every moment."
It was not that long ago -- September 1999, to be exact -- that Vaughn was the most valuable player in the majors. He hit 14 home runs and drove in 33 runs that month to lead the Reds to a share of the NL wild card.
The next month will be the most critical he has played since.
Should he lift himself out of this slump, he and the Rays will be richer for it. Either the team will enjoy his increased production, or Tampa Bay will rid itself of the burden of his salary in trade.
Should his woes continue, the Rays will have to decide whether this was a slump or the beginning of the end.
Either way, the next month should decide his fate.
And the only way to figure that out is to let him play.
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