© St. Petersburg Times, published June 30, 2002
ST. PETERSBURG -- It's not, as many thought in the spring, going to be Toby Hall. Nor is it Greg Vaughn, Ben Grieve or a young pitcher. The season-long question of who would be the Rays' All-Star will be answered tonight, when Randy Winn is expected to be selected.
As Winn plans for the July 9 affair, there is another question to ponder:
Can the Rays afford to pay for his success?
Winn is one of several arbitration-eligible players whom the Rays must decide -- and decide soon given the July 31 deadline for non-waiver trades -- if they plan to keep.
"I think the next month is critical to making decisions," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "Do we keep Randy Winn? Are we going to pay him? Do we keep Steve Cox? Do we keep Paul Wilson? There are others obviously, but those three stick out as three guys having good years."
The answer, of course, must come from the top. Ownership, fronted by managing general partner Vince Naimoli, must decide how much it's willing to spend on player payroll next year.
Given this season's declining attendance, the uncertain labor situation and what likely are huge losses, it's probably a good bet there won't be a big increase from this year's major-league low of $34-million. A decrease probably is as likely, and status quo might be a victory.
Once LaMar knows how much he'll have to spend, he has to determine how to use it. The Rays are obligated, barring a trade, for at least $15.5-million next season -- $9.25-million to Greg Vaughn, $5.25-million to Ben Grieve, $775,000 to Russ Johnson and a $250,000 buyout to Chris Gomez if they don't pick up his $2-million option. Plus they've talked about re-signing John Flaherty.
What LaMar has to determine is how much the arbitration-eligible players are due to get. And he has to do that without knowing whether baseball will operate under a different economic system.
Winn, who makes $960,000 this season, likely is headed to the $2-million- to $3-million-a-year category. Wilson, who makes $1.2-million, could top $3-million. Cox, who makes $280,000, probably will get more than $1-million.
Keeping those three alone could add $5-million to the payroll, and there are other arbitration eligibles, such as Ryan Rupe, Esteban Yan, Tanyon Sturtze, and Doug Creek who are due raises if they are retained.
Once all the figuring is done, LaMar will start trying to close deals, seeing what he can get for whom. He has already made it known that he'll take cash, or cash and prospects, to facilitate the process, figuring he can strike a better deal before the market gets glutted in late July, and certainly better than in the offseason.
Depending on what he ends up doing, Rays fans will have some questions of their own, such as whether the team is headed toward another dismal season and another loop on the treadmill of keeping players until they improve, then dumping them.
LaMar, to his credit, said the key will be evaluating what he gets back, whether it be legitimate prospects and/or cash to use on other players.
"But if we trade this guy or sell this guy and we don't get good players in return or we're not able to use that cash to help, then time out -- "Are we just going to stick with young kids and have a $20-million payroll?' The fans have every right to ask that question," LaMar said.
"That's why over this next month we'll get a feeling for what direction the 2003 club is going to take. Are we going to continue to call young guys up and add some veterans to that, or are we strictly going to go young and keep our payroll down? I think that will be answered for everyone, including myself."
NEXT WAVE: Outfielder Carl Crawford wasn't ready to be called up last week when Vaughn went on the disabled list, but LaMar said he should be by the end of the season. Other minor-leaguers whom LaMar said have a chance to be here in September include pitchers Dewon Brazelton, Luis De Los Santos, Gerardo Garcia, Seth McClung and Jason Standridge.
HOO-RAYS: The Giants are said to be most interested in Winn and Creek. ... Talk is that interleague play matchups will shift again next season, with the Rays playing NL Central teams. ... Attendance is officially behind last year's pace, when the Rays drew 1.2-million. ... The new 10th Man Club is the result of Rays players purchasing 2,000 tickets that will be given to needy children throughout the season.