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Rays make deal for SS Ordonez

Slick-fielding shortstop acquired from Mets for Russ Johnson and a player to be named.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 16, 2002

NASHVILLE -- The Devil Rays felt like they made a pretty good catch Sunday in acquiring slick-fielding shortstop Rey Ordonez from the Mets. If Ordonez regains his Gold Glove form, he could turn out to be quite a bargain, too.

The Rays landed Ordonez, who was considered one of game's top defensive players until a poor 2002 season, for a minimal cost.

After getting $4.25-million from the Mets to apply toward Ordonez's $6.25-million salary and giving up Russ Johnson (who was to make $775,000) and a Double-A level minor-leaguer, the Rays have only a next expense of $1.25-million, leaving them in position to add a leadoff-hitting outfielder and a utility infielder.

"Our primary goal was to find the best defensive shortstop we could get our hands on, and I thought we did that," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said.

"You're getting, before last year, one of the finest defensive shortstops that ever played the game, and that's not an overstatement. I think everyone here realizes that. He struggled last year defensively, for whatever reason. ... I don't think he'll repeat those woes. He's too good a shortstop and at his age (31) he has too much future still ahead of him. ... We think he'll be much closer to his pre-2002 form than he was last year."

The addition of Ordonez, along with the plan to play rookie Rocco Baldelli in centerfield, should make the Rays a much stronger defensive team. The pitchers figure to benefit immensely from Ordonez's tremendous range and acrobatic style.

"How do you help young pitching out the best? You catch the ball," Rays manager Lou Piniella said. "That's what this guy specializes in. He's been one of the slickest fielding shortstops in baseball for many, many years. We expect him to come to Tampa Bay and play well for us, and I think the fans will really enjoy watching him play at that position."

Ordonez is a former Cuban national team player who defected in 1993 and went to the Mets through a draft lottery. He made it to the majors in 1996 and quickly established himself as one of the game's best defenders, winning three straight National League Gold Glove awards from 1997-99, then signing a four-year, $19-million contract. He missed much of the 2000 season with a broken left arm, and after an inconsistent 2001 performance he struggled inexplicably last year, making 19 errors -- seven more than Chris Gomez did for the Rays.

Mets officials said they didn't know what the problem was.

"Rey had a tremendous spring training. Part of it was he had a new double-play partner (Roberto Alomar) and he was showing off for him; he was absolutely phenomenal," Mets general manager Steve Phillips said. "He went into a little slump early defensively, he started playing well again and then as our season started to unravel so did our team defense.

"He made some silly errors. Whether that was partly due to focus or concentration, he hasn't lost his skills, he hasn't lost his arm strength or his soft hands. So I'm pretty confident he's going to bounce back and be the defender he's always been."

Ordonez has never been much of an offensive player, posting a .254 career average and eight homers in nearly 3,000 at-bats. Last season, he hit .254 (.288 on turf), with one homer and 42 RBIs. He doesn't walk or strike out much.

Piniella said the Rays don't expect much, but are confident hitting coach Lee Elia can make Ordonez more productive.

Ordonez created an off-field controversy in the final week of the season when he lashed out at Shea Stadium fans who had been critical of him, saying: "I don't want to play here no more. The fans here are too stupid. You have to play perfect every game. You can't make an error. You can't go 0-for-4. Are we like (expletive) machines?"

Ordonez backed off the next day, saying his comments were made out of frustration and directed specifically at fans who were making personal comments. LaMar and Piniella said they were not concerned about the incident and thought a change of scenery would help. LaMar talked to Ordonez's wife, Gloryann, late Sunday and said both were excited about the deal.

The Rays asked last month about Ordonez, whom the Mets were looking to move to make room for prospect Jose Reyes and create some financial flexibility. The deal was discussed at length Saturday and again Sunday, with Ben Grieve supposedly headed to the Mets, who then, according to one report, would have sent him to Boston for John Burkett.

But the Mets apparently decided they would rather pay more money and agreed to the deal when the Rays offered Johnson -- the utility infielder who was taken off the roster after a season interrupted by personal problems -- and the minor-leaguer, who may be identified today.

As those negotiations went on, the Rays explored other options. They were especially fond of Toronto's Felipe Lopez, but refused to part with Joe Kennedy, whom the Blue Jays insisted on. Lopez was instead sent to Cincinnati in a four-team deal that netted the Jays a minor-league pitching prospect.

They also were interested in free agents such as Rey Sanchez and Jose Hernandez, but found their price to be too high -- in excess of the $1.75-million Royce Clayton got from Milwaukee. They apparently passed on Deivi Cruz, a lesser defensive player who signed with Baltimore for $1.2-million.

With Ordonez aboard, the Rays will focus on acquiring an athletic outfielder who could bat leadoff and start in rightfield if they can find a taker for Grieve.

"This acquisition here allows us now to go do what we want to do from the offensive side of things," Piniella said. "We haven't been able to focus on that situation until we got a shortstop."

The Rays can add additional depth in the Rule 5 draft of players not on 40-man rosters. The Rays have the second pick and are planning to make at least one selection. Pitchers Adrian Hernandez (Yankees), Will McCrotty (Dodgers), Derek Thompson (Indians) and outfielder Jermaine Clark (Rangers) are possibilities.

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