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Situation same but different

If Piniella turns around Rays as he did M's, he'll do it with fewer stars, lower payroll.

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 30, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- It is a task skeptics said Lou Piniella wouldn't want and possibly couldn't fix despite his best efforts.

By agreeing to manage the Devil Rays for the next four years, Piniella inherits a team that has lost 206 games combined the past two seasons and boasts the lowest payroll and youngest roster in the majors.

"I think he wants that challenge," said Joe Oliver, who played under Piniella with the Reds and Mariners. "I think he really does well when his challenge is great like that."

Piniella was a prime player in a recent case study in how to turn an underachieving franchise into a winner with financial assistance from ownership and smart personnel moves by the general manager.

The Mariners lost 98 in 1992 before Piniella took over the next season.

But Seattle had a surplus of talented youth that would thrive under Piniella's direction or with other teams when they became too pricy. On the 1993 roster were pitchers Randy Johnson and Mike Hampton, infielders Tino Martinez, Bret Boone, Omar Vizquel and Fernando Vina, outfielders Ken Griffey and Jay Buhner and designated hitter Edgar Martinez.

The Mariners improved by 18 wins in 1993, won their first AL West title in 1995 and have been contenders since despite the losses of Johnson, Griffey and Alex Rodriguez.

"He took a good core of young talent, brought them together, instilled a lot of discipline on the field and off," Oliver said. "And those guys grew together as a nucleus and he was able to go out and get pieces here and there to make them even better.

"As he became more confident in those players out there, he seemed to let off the reins and kind of let them police each other. Then he could concentrate on managing. He had to go in there and really turn a whole clubhouse around."

Could Piniella work the same kind of magic with a Rays core that includes first baseman Aubrey Huff, outfielder Carl Crawford, catcher Toby Hall and pitcher Joe Kennedy?

"Am I going to tell you that we're going to be in the postseason next year? No, I'm not going to tell you that," Piniella said. "But I'll tell you this: You're going to have a fun team on the field that plays hard every day and is going to win its fair share of ballgames.

"Winning to me is an attitude. The same way that you can develop a losing attitude, you can develop a winning attitude. That's something that we'll have to start working on from the first day in spring training and that's going to be the biggest job that we have here. But the talent here is good, and when you have good talent you have a darn good chance of winning every day."

Some think turning the Rays into a contender is by no means a longshot with Piniella in charge.

"I've always said that if you give him nine guys, obviously you need some talent, but if you give him nine guys he's going to find a way to get the most out of them and win games," Tino Martinez said.

"If there's a manager you want to go out and start a team with, build a good winning team, he'll go out and get you guys that want to win, guys that play like he did, and he will find a way to make them a special team. No doubt in my mind."

One difference between Seattle and Tampa Bay, except for this season, was the Mariners' ability to acquire solid players.

It was pitchers such as Jamie Moyer, Freddy Garcia, Paul Abbott, Aaron Sele and Kazuhiro Sasaki and position players such as Ichiro Suzuki, John Olerud and Mike Cameron -- none of whom were on the Mariners roster in 1995 -- that filled voids and led Seattle to 116 wins in 2001.

The Rays may not have the financial wherewithal to address their many needs until 2004, when they begin to benefit from the new collective bargaining agreement.

Thus Piniella will work with the new pack of cards he has been given and manage this season with a payroll that could dip well below $30-million.

"He can be tough on young guys, but he expects 100 percent effort," said Oliver, who had one year of major-league experience when Piniella made him the Reds' everyday catcher in 1990. "I think that's the one thing that a lot of the young players didn't understand. As long as he saw that you were giving it everything you've got and you understood when you messed up what you did and what you did wrong, he can deal with that."

Piniella comes with a reputation of being particularly demanding of younger players, employing a Darwinistic approach to evaluating the stronger and weaker.

That particularly holds true with young pitchers, which the Rays have plenty of in Kennedy, Jesus Colome, Victor Zambrano, Travis Phelps, Esteban Yan and others.

"If you do your job and don't give him a reason to yell at you," Kennedy said, "it shouldn't be a problem."

What remains to be seen is how much patience Piniella will have with those in the Rays clubhouse. How long until the expected losses, the mistakes in the field or at the plate will be seen through understanding eyes.

"It's not understanding your mistakes, not understanding how to correct them, that's what would bother him. And especially lack of effort," Oliver said. "If he started seeing guys hot-dogging or any kind of letoff in effort, you were either going to Triple A or you were going to sit on the bench.

"He sent messages that way and some players didn't like it. Some responded a good way and some responded a bad way. But it was time for somebody to grow up and that was his message: 'Let's grow up. We're major-league ballplayers. This is what you have to do to perform at this level.' "

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