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Piniella's focus on shortstop

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002

With Lou Piniella's coaching staff just about complete -- an announcement could come today -- the Rays can begin to focus more on personnel.

And nowhere is there a greater need than at shortstop.

By releasing starter Chris Gomez last month, the Rays have veteran Andy Sheets, second-year player Felix Escalona and minor-league prospects Jason Smith and the recently acquired Antonio Perez as their options.

"I want somebody who can catch it and I want somebody who's got good range," Piniella said. "You need that in the Trop with the fast infield.

"And how do you improve your pitching? You improve your pitching by improving your defense. That's basically what we're looking to do at that position."

The Rays will scan the list of free agents, nontender players and prospects in other organizations they think can come in and do the job right away.

Obtaining a reasonably priced veteran shortstop is not out of the question. Among the affordable middle infielders that have filed for free agency are Rey Sanchez ($700,000 with Boston in 2002), Deivi Cruz ($600,000 with San Diego) and Royce Clayton, who made $4-million but was released by the White Sox in September.

"The middle of the infield has been a concern and will be a concern this offseason," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "We have got to do a better job defensively of catching the ball in the middle of the diamond."

COACHING STAFF: Discussions regarding Piniella's new pitching, bench and bullpen coaches continued Saturday.

Seattle special assignment pitching coach Chris Bosio, who played 11 seasons with the Brewers and Mariners, interviewed for pitching coach Thursday. John McLaren, an assistant on Piniella's staff since 1992, is the leading candidate to become the new bench coach, and former catcher Matt Sinatro is up for the bullpen coach's job, the same position he has held in Seattle the past eight seasons.

Triple-A Durham manager Bill Evers and Rays minor-league pitching coordinator Chuck Hernandez also interviewed for spots on Piniella's staff.

Lee Elia, a coaching consultant the past two seasons with the Mariners, was named hitting coach Tuesday. Tom Foley and Billy Hatcher were retained from last season's staff.

LET'S MAKE A DEAL: The general manager's meetings start Monday in Tucson and end Thursday.

Though the majority of offseason deals will be made around the winter meetings next month, the foundation for any future acquisitions could be laid this week.

"The way we can get younger is to start talking to teams about some of our arbitration-eligible players," LaMar said. "I think that's where a lot of the interest and a lot of our conversation will be.

"Even with the departure of Randy Winn we still have a talented group of arbitration-eligible players. If we're able to get younger by trading one or some of those players, we would have to consider that."

Starting pitchers Tanyon Sturtze, Paul Wilson and Ryan Rupe, closer Esteban Yan and first baseman Steve Cox are arbitration eligible. Cox, Yan and Sturtze are expected to draw interest.

MORE WANTS AND NEEDS: In addition to a shortstop, fourth outfielder and a couple veteran late-inning relievers, Piniella's wish list includes a left-handed hitting catcher to back up Toby Hall.

Among the free agents that fit the description are Detroit's Matt Walbeck, Milwaukee's Jorge Fabregas, Oakland's Greg Myers and San Diego's Tom Lampkin. Lampkin, who made $1.25-million last season, played for Piniella from 1999-2001.

ALL FOR CHARITY: A's pitcher Tim Hudson and Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon are two of the celebrities expected to participate in LaMar's Grand Slam Celebrity Fishing Tournament that runs Friday through Sunday and benefits the Pediatric Cancer Foundation.

The tournament has raised nearly $400,000 for cancer research in its first four years.

"It's such a great cause," LaMar said. "For everybody involved in the tournament, they see the young kids and their families that are afflicted with this disease, and they can't help but want to get involved."

ODDS AND ENDS: Among the Rays playing winter ball in the Puerto Rico or Dominican Republic leagues are third baseman Jared Sandberg (Caguas) and pitchers Brandon Backe (Santurce), Jason Jimenez (Ponce), Jesus Colome (Estrellas) and Jorge Sosa (Licey). ... The Rays have signed free agent first baseman Ryan Jackson and catchers Sandy Martinez and Angel Pena to minor-league contracts.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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