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Piniella hopes vets fill in holes

By MARK TOPKIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 8, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Lou Piniella has been kept busy selling the Devil Rays, giving speeches and pitching tickets to business groups. But he also has been working to make them better, watching video, studying stat sheets and talking things over and over.

Six weeks into his job as manager -- or, as some would say, savior -- of the Rays, Piniella has some ideas.

He's thinking about moving Carl Crawford to rightfield, making some corrections to Ben Grieve's swing, getting more speed in the lineup, relying on a young pitching staff.

While endorsing the plan to go with young players, Piniella will push at this week's winter meetings to sign a couple of veterans to provide stability and depth. Not break-the-bank stars, but lower-priced yet recognizable names such as outfielder Doug Glanville or infielder Rey Sanchez.

The No.1 need, obviously, is a shortstop, preferably one who can bat leadoff and run. Next is a centerfielder if blue-chip prospect Rocco Baldelli is too green but versatile enough to be the fourth man. After that, a veteran backup catcher, to help Toby Hall and the young pitchers, then a veteran reliever or two.

Whether they have the money to do so remains to be seen, but Piniella said he is planning -- and hoping -- for it.

"If we can tweak things and bring in a few guys, we'll get there a little bit quicker," he said.

Much of the lineup appears set, with Aubrey Huff at first, Jared Sandberg at third and Hall behind the plate. Brent Abernathy is the first choice at second base, though challenges seemingly will be welcomed. The thin bench is a concern.

Baldelli will get "every opportunity" to make the team. Piniella said he figures the outfield defense will be better by moving the athletic Crawford to right and Grieve to left. Greg Vaughn -- "He needs to get it going," Piniella said -- will be the designated hitter. Piniella, by the way, said he is confident new hitting coach Lee Elia can help Vaughn and Grieve.

The pitching staff will be young, especially if the Rays -- as it appears -- don't have the money to retain veterans Tanyon Sturtze, Paul Wilson and Esteban Yan. Joe Kennedy will be in the rotation, and Piniella said he hopes Nick Bierbrodt will be, too, along with Dewon Brazelton and Victor Zambrano.

The bullpen will be wide open, especially if they don't sign a veteran.

"We've got a plethora of good young arms," Piniella said. "We'll try to put a staff together, but in what roles I have no idea. Spring training will tell us."

Spring training will tell a lot. Camp opens in 68 days.

THOME LANE: Realizing a five-year, $63.25-million deal wasn't enough even though -- wink, wink -- it wasn't about the money, the Indians tried to get creative with Jim Thome.

Among the extras, they offered to name a street near the stadium after him, produce an instructional video and give him the profits, set up a home run porch with donations made to charity, build two youth baseball fields a year in his name and give him a 10-year, $2.5-million personal services contract and a $500,000 Hall of Fame bonus.

GOING SOUTH: The Rays' chance to land Cuban defector Jose Contreras with the top pick in the June draft appeared to take a big hit. Contreras reportedly has gone to Nicaragua to seek residency, which, if granted, will allow him to be a free agent.

If Contreras came straight from Cuba to America, he would be subject to the draft. But by establishing residency elsewhere, the supposedly 30-year-old right-hander likely will get permission to negotiate with all teams, with the Yankees, Red Sox and Mariners expected to be the most interested. Contreras might seek in excess of $10-million a year.

WINTER WONDERS: Through 15 games in Puerto Rico, Sandberg has hit .182 with one homer and six RBIs for Caguas with 23 strikeouts in 55 at-bats. Damian Rolls hit .314 in 12 games for Santurce. ... In the Dominican Republic, Yan is 1-1 with a 2.45 ERA and two saves in seven games for Estrellas. Jesus Colome is 0-0, 5.03, allowing 21 hits and eight walks in 192/3 innings. Luis De Los Santos is 3-1, 2.04 in seven starts. Jorge Sosa is 0-2, 4.61, in 14 appearances for Licey. ... In Mexico, Gerardo Garcia is 3-0, 1.08 for Culiacan.

HOO-RAYS: Negotiations between Steve Cox and Japan's Yokohama are expected to wrap up early this week. ... The team's annual holiday party for children from the St. Petersburg Family YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs of the Suncoast is Monday at Tropicana Field. ... Baldelli was named to the Topps/Minor League Baseball Class A All-Star team. So was player personnel director Cam Bonifay's son, Josh, a second baseman in the Pirates system. HE SAID IT: "It's the most laid-back town I've ever played in, and that kind of drags you down." -- new Dodger Todd Hundley after his first stint in Los Angeles.

MISCELLANY: The last Braves team without Tom Glavine? 1986. ... Ex-Ray Ryan Rupe got about $750,000 in a one-year deal with the Red Sox. ... Now that the Phillies did not sign starting pitcher Jamie Moyer, Chuck Finley likely is next on their list. ... Ex-Rays bullpen coach Orlando Gomez was hired in Seattle.

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


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