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Rays add defense with signing of first baseman Travis Lee

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 7, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Devil Rays made their defense better and their lineup more convoluted Thursday by signing former Philadelphia first baseman Travis Lee.

Lee, who is guaranteed $1-million next season and could make as much as $4-million over two seasons, has ranked as one of the National League's top defensive first basemen the past two seasons and joins Rey Ordonez and Marlon Anderson in improving the Rays' ability to catch the ball.

But what does his arrival mean for Aubrey Huff, the team's top hitter who was poised to take over full time at first base?

"I don't know what it means," Huff said. "It's an interesting move, I guess. Jared Sandberg mentioned to me that he read something last week about us maybe signing Travis Lee, and I thought, "That would be kind of weird.' I really don't know what to think."

Lee, 27, has played the outfield before, but most likely is going to be at first base. New manager Lou Piniella has said repeatedly he wants to "put the best defensive club we can on the field every day."

General manager Chuck LaMar said late Thursday: "We think Travis Lee is an outstanding defensive first baseman who can rebound offensively. We also think he's a good enough athlete, depending on how things shake out, that if we need him to play right or leftfield he's capable of doing so."

With Lee at first, the Rays likely will make Huff the full-time DH, though at 26 he is young for that role. Doing so wouldn't appear to leave any room for veterans Greg Vaughn, who is due $9.25-million, or Lee Stevens, who signed a minor-league contract, and would seem to force them to keep Ben Grieve in rightfield.

Another option would be to move Huff to third base, where he has struggled previously. Huff said that would be unlikely: "They pretty much had me washed out at third, so I can't imagine putting me back there."

Lee, a 1996 loophole free agent like Rays minor-league pitchers Matt White and Bobby Seay, signed with Arizona for $10-million. His most productive season was his rookie year in 1998, when he hit .269 with 22 home runs and 72 RBIs. He was traded to Philadelphia in July 2000 and last season hit .265 with 13 home runs and 70 RBIs, similar to what the Rays got from Steve Cox. Lee has a .255 career average with 73 homers and 336 RBIs in 704 games.

Lee will get a $500,000 salary this season with the chance to make another $500,000 in incentives. There is a mutual option for 2004 at $2.5-million, with a $500,000 buyout, and another $500,000 available in incentives.

Lee was let go by the Phillies after the signing of Jim Thome and turned down an offer of at least $1-million from Atlanta. "I didn't know it would take this long, but that's the way the market has been going," Lee said. "I'm just relieved to have a team. ... I'm excited to come down there and help turn things around."

Also, the Rays began signing the young players on their roster. Infielder Hector Luna and pitchers Gerardo Garcia, Seth McClung and White agreed to one-year deals for the new major-league minimum $300,000 with separate minor-league salaries.

Justice says he'll retire

OAKLAND, Calif. -- David Justice is going through with his decision to retire.

The outfielder said after Oakland's playoff loss to Minnesota that he intended to quit baseball. On Thursday, he confirmed his playing days are over.

"Fourteen seasons is long enough," he told ESPN radio. "I have a diminished desire to play."

Justice, 36, went to the playoffs 10 times in 12 seasons, winning the World Series with the Braves in 1995 and the Yankees in 2000.

The three-time All-Star also played for the Indians and Athletics, hitting .266 with 11 homers and 49 RBIs last season.

He had a .279 career average with 305 homers and 1,017 RBIs.

CARDINALS: Left-hander Rick Ankiel, who didn't pitch last year because of an elbow injury, agreed to a one-year contract.

EXPOS: The team renewed its one-year lease at Olympic Stadium.

REDS: Pitcher Bruce Chen lost his arbitration case and will make $700,000 this season instead of the $830,000 for which he asked.

TIGERS: Former Detroit ace Jack Morris will serve as color commentator on the 40 games that WKBD-TV will broadcast this season.

ROSE REINSTATEMENT: Commissioner Bud Selig, speaking at the annual Fox Sports Net luncheon in San Francisco, would not say whether he is considering lifting the ban agreed to by Pete Rose following an investigation of his gambling 14 years ago.

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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