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Piniella confident in Rays' top brass

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003

Part of the reason Lou Piniella accepted a four-year offer to manage the Devil Rays was the commitment shown from those within the organization to get better.

"There's no reason why it can't happen," Piniella said Thursday during a lunch with Times executives. "It's not a gloom-and-doom situation as it looks on the surface. But (ownership is) committed. They want to win, they really do."

Pitchers and catchers report next month, beginning Piniella's first season with the Rays, and the 59-year-old is as realistic as he is ready for what awaits.

"What we're basically going to do this year is go with our young players, give them a chance to play and let them mature," said Piniella, whose goal in his first season remains setting a franchise record for wins. "Hopefully we'll compete for wins and then start bringing in some free agents next winter that really fill in our voids."

Managing general partner Vince Naimoli told Piniella recently that an additional $20- to $25-million could be available for payroll after this season. That's when the Rays, whose total payroll this year is expected to be less than $30-million, will begin reaping the benefits of a new collective bargaining agreement. They'll also be rid of their remaining big contracts with designated hitter Greg Vaughn ($9.25-million this season) and outfielder Ben Grieve ($5.5-million).

"There's some money to spend," Piniella said. "If there are some good free agents out there next year that fit into our mold, there's some money to spend to get this thing moving in the right direction."

QUESTION MARKS: The most unsettled area heading into spring training is the pitching staff.

"If you gave me $100, I couldn't give you 12 names that we're going to pitch on our staff," Piniella said. "I can give you seven or eight, but I couldn't give you 12."

Aside from replacing Tanyon Sturtze (224 innings), Paul Wilson (193.2) and Ryan Rupe in the starting rotation, a closer is needed now that Esteban Yan is gone. The ability to throw strikes, field his position and hold runners are necessary traits to Piniella.

"We'll find somebody," he said. "If not, we'll use a few of them."

Help also might become available when teams begin cutting players in spring training.

WORKING BACK: Mariners reliever Norm Charlton is weeks away from attempting another comeback. The 40-year-old hasn't pitched since 2001 and had surgery to repair a torn labrum in January 2002.

The Mariners released Charlton and he drew interest from other teams, including the Rays. The left-hander has pitched for Piniella in nine of his 13 seasons.

"I don't know the other offers, but my majority of interest was (in Seattle)," said Charlton, who signed a minor-league contract with the Mariners worth up to $700,000.

"It's a great city. I have tons of family and friends here. I'm familiar with the organization and I'm on good terms with all the players. I enjoy being around them. I have a house here. All those things came into play."

ODDS AND ENDS: The Rays continue to scour the free-agent market to find a veteran outfielder and a utility infielder. Both searches took hits last week when free-agent outfielders Todd Hollandsworth (Marlins), Shane Spencer (Indians) and infielder Desi Relaford (Royals) signed. Alex Ochoa is likely the next leading outfield candidate. ... Infield prospect Gabby Martinez won the Puerto Rican League batting title. Martinez hit .375 in 35 games for the Ponce Lions. Catcher Hector Ortiz, acquired this offseason, finished second with a .336 average in 38 games for the Caguas Criollos. ... Wilson's name has surfaced as a possible candidate to sign with the Mariners, who are looking for one more starting pitcher.

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

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