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Piniella is bold with statements

The new Rays manager is not shying from predicting success as the team looks to improve with deals.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2002

NASHVILLE -- The Devil Rays were working hard Saturday to try to get better, talking to the Mets about shortstop Rey Ordonez, the Blue Jays about infielder Felipe Lopez and the representatives of several free agents.

But even as those discussions continued, new manager Lou Piniella was promising improvement.

In his first national media session since taking the job, Piniella outlined ambitious goals for a team that has finished last five straight years and lost a major-league-high 106 games last season: 70 wins this year, around 81 the next, and the chance to compete for a championship in 2005.

"I'm excited about our prospects for next year," Piniella said. "I know it will be a challenging year in some ways, but at the same time I like challenges.

"I would think within three years we're going to have a darned good ballclub. This year, we have a modest goal of hopefully setting the franchise record for wins. Next year, try to get it as close as possible or at or over the .500 mark, and then be competitive by the third year. That's an aggressive goal, but that's what we'd like to do."

Getting a shortstop, an outfielder and perhaps a late-inning reliever would help them get better quickly. Talks about the slick-fielding Ordonez appeared to be serious Saturday, with some of the talk undoubtedly involving how much of his $6.25-million salary would be paid by New York. Ordonez has struggled offensively and has had some clubhouse issues, but has won three Gold Gloves (1997-99) and still can be a spectacular defensive player. It was not clear whom the Rays would give up, though the Mets have previously expressed interest in Ben Grieve and Esteban Yan. The Mets also are talking with Colorado about a deal involving Ordonez.

Talks with Toronto about Lopez continued though it has been reported the Jays want Joe Kennedy, the young left-hander Tampa Bay is unlikely to deal. The Rays also have expressed interest in Houston's Adam Everett and are talking about free-agents Rey Sanchez, Deivi Cruz and Jose Hernandez, whose agent, Alan Nero, also represents Piniella.

As for outfielders, the Rays talked with a representative of Matt Stairs, who hit 16 homers in 107 games for Milwaukee, and continued discussing Doug Glanville, Alex Ochoa and Todd Hollandsworth, who is being pursued by the Marlins and others.

"A busy day," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "We've had a wide range of discussions."

Talks advanced to the point where LaMar rejected at least two deals, and was waiting only to hear back from another team, possibly the Mets, on a third.

LaMar also said there was "significant" interest in arbitration-eligible pitchers Tanyon Sturtze, Paul Wilson and Yan. "If anything, interest has increased," he said. Texas is among those interested.

Also, the Rays are close to a minor-league deal with former star closer Mel Rojas, a 36-year-old who hasn't pitched in the majors since 1999 but is making an impressive comeback in the Dominican Republic.

Since the possibility of the move first surfaced in October, there has been national skepticism of why Piniella would want to manage the Rays and whether he can be happy with them.

Saturday, he made it clear -- again.

"A lot of people wondered why, but the challenge of putting together something in your hometown area, and also the fact that I'm home," Piniella said. "I have a home (in Redington Beach) 20 minutes from spring training camp and (a home in Tampa) 20 minutes from our regular-season home. Where can you beat that? I'm fortunate in that regard. I've got a chance to see my grandchildren grow up and let my hair turn gray until we start winning with the regularity that I like."

Even with the aggressive timetable, Piniella insists he realizes the need to be patient not only in teaching the players how to win, but getting them to believe they can do it.

"It takes a little time," Piniella said. "It starts with a good coaching staff, which I feel I have. It's something that can't be forced on a team or on players. But it's something that will be instilled from my first meeting with the team, and we'll augment that every chance that we get. It's something that's not going to happen overnight.

"I'm well aware the Tampa Bay organization has had trouble winning baseball games. But I didn't go there to retire. I'm going there to prosper. It's my hometown area, and I certainly don't want to fall flat on my face there, and I don't think that I will."

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