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Ready or not, here's Crawford

Rays, seeking a spark, call up the top prospect, but will be careful with him.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002

TORONTO -- Watching the Rays lately has been tough -- scream at the TV and throw your arms in the air kind of tough. After Friday's brutal loss, which turned out to be not as bad as Saturday's 12-10 debacle, general manager Chuck LaMar decided to try to do something about it.

Though the timing probably isn't right, he decided to call up touted outfielder Carl Crawford, one of the Rays premier prospects, as part of a six-player shuffle aimed at shaking up the struggling team.

Crawford, who went 1-for-4 with two RBIs in his debut, will be the everyday leftfielder, with Andy Sheets taking a reserve infield spot and Victor Zambrano rejoining the bullpen. Veteran reliever Doug Creek and outfielder Dave McCarty were designated for assignment and infielder Jason Smith optioned to Triple-A Durham.

There is too much wrong with this team for any one player to fix, especially a 20-year-old with fewer than four months' experience at Triple A. But despite the protestations of Rays officials, cautious after seeing several of their other young players struggle, the spotlight will burn bright on Crawford, whose rapid progress has been one of the organization's few success stories.

"Carl Crawford obviously is one of our better prospects and has a chance to be a good major-league player, yet he's only 20 years old and he needs to continue to develop and he's going to do so at the major-league level," LaMar said from home.

"Is he truly ready to play in the major leagues? In my opinion, no. But the combination of his mental toughness, the experience that will continue to help his development and the situation we're in all led to his call-up."

Crawford, his average down to .297 after a rough couple of weeks at Durham, was surprised. The Rays passed over him to promote McCarty 31/2 weeks ago, and he was shooting for a September call-up.

"I just wanted to get my feet wet, get a taste of the big leagues, see what kind of adjustments I have to make so that I can stay here," Crawford said. "I just wanted to get the beginning part out of the way and get on with everything else."

Saturday wasn't a bad start, as he singled in two runs and scored from second on a passed ball. "I'm happy to get the first hit out of the way and the first game out of the way," Crawford said. "Hopefully I can get something started."

Tampa Bay's second pick in the 1999 draft, Crawford is aware of the hype and expectations that precede him, but vows to not be caught up in it, having discussed that very issue with Toby Hall after Hall's May demotion.

"That's what happened to him so he was trying to tell me not to do the same thing, and I'm going to kind of keep that in mind," Crawford said. "I'm just going to work hard and do the same things I was doing in Durham and hopefully it will pay off. I'm not trying to feed into all the hype that's probably going on.

"If I don't get a hit in my first at-bat I'm just going to try to get one in the next at-bat. I'm not going to stress myself out like in spring training thinking I've got to get a hit in every at-bat."

As well as Crawford has done, earning selections to the Futures and Triple-A all-star games, there are certain things he will have to learn as he goes -- pitch recognition and strike-zone knowledge, adjustments to the increased movement and better location of major-league pitches.

To ease the transition, manager Hal McRae will bat Crawford at the bottom of the order and rest him judiciously.

McRae, who a few weeks ago said he thought Crawford would be better served staying at Triple A all season, also is hoping Crawford avoids the hype:

"You hope that he feels that he's no better than his last game and that each day he takes the field he has to prove to everyone that he's a good player, doesn't take anything for granted and doesn't try to live up to anybody else's standard but to play like Carl can play and hope that that's good enough."

Calling Crawford up now to help his development could backfire on the Rays if the players go on strike since minor-leaguers can continue playing. Eventually it also will cause something of a lineup logjam since Greg Vaughn, whenever he comes off the disabled list, will have to be the DH, with Aubrey Huff likely moving to third and displacing Jared Sandberg.

For now, the Rays just want to let Crawford play.

"He is a prospect and was called up to help his development," LaMar said. "A lot of time fans, the minute you call up a prospect, especially with the notoriety Carl Crawford has received, they think they're already a major-league player. He will prove over the next couple years he is a major-league player. Right now he's a major-league prospect continuing his development."

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