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Arms shortage spring's top obstacle

Rays have more pitchers than anyone in camp in search for 12 useful ones.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- They'll show up today for the first day of work under new manager Lou Piniella amid the standard questions. Who's new? Who's that? Who looks better? Who looks fat?

And then there's this:

Who's going to pitch?

The Devil Rays open spring training this morning with a major league-high 38 pitchers invited to camp, and even that probably won't be enough to yield a 12-man staff by the end of the six-week warmup.

Because they didn't want to spend the money to bring back the key members of last year's staff, and because they didn't have the money to bring in quality replacements, the Rays have left themselves woefully short of proven arms.

"Our biggest job here in spring training," Piniella said Thursday, "is going to have to be putting a pitching staff together."

Letting starters Tanyon Sturtze, Paul Wilson and Ryan Rupe, as well as Wilson Alvarez, go wasn't exactly like tearing up the Braves rotation. But they took 17 wins, 88 starts and, most important, 5542/3 innings with them, almost 60 percent of those pitched by Tampa Bay starters.

Similarly, nobody but antacid sales reps may miss closer Esteban Yan, but the Rays don't have a pitcher on their 40-man roster with more than five career saves or anyone in camp who had more than two in the majors last season.

Overall, the Rays are missing nearly half their innings (6742/3 of 1,4401/3) and decisions (26 of 55 wins; 54 of 106 losses) from last season.

"Where we probably lost the most is the innings pitched that we got from the veteran pitchers we had last year," Piniella said. "Some of our young pitchers are going to have to step up.

"We're going to be much better off -- I'm talking about from a pitching standpoint and a total team standpoint -- giving all of our young kids an ample opportunity to pitch. We'll know exactly what we have as far as major-league pitchers are concerned, and then we can add the pieces over the winter next year to really start putting this thing in progress."

Throughout the spring, Rays officials will go back and forth on the benefits, as well as the cost, of giving the young pitchers an opportunity versus hanging on to veterans who might help more now.

"I'm sure Lou and I will have more than one discussion about, we all want to go young and we all want to win baseball games, too," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "I think we'll have a few of those discussions before the end of spring."

Depending on how they're throwing, and in many cases how they're feeling, several veterans brought in on new market minor-league deals could make strong bids for jobs.

Guys such as Steve Parris, who won 23 games for the Reds in 1999-2000 before a shoulder injury; Jim Parque, who won 13 games for the 2000 White Sox but since has had shoulder surgery; John Frascatore, who was an effective middle reliever for years but couldn't get a job last season; Bob Wells, a nine-year veteran who pitched in 48 games for the Twins last season despite midseason elbow surgery; and Carlos Reyes, another veteran middle man who spent last season as a minor-league coach.

But the key to the spring is going to be the progress of the prospects.

Dewon Brazelton, the 22-year-old top pick from 2001, is expected to win a spot in the rotation. And with two games of big-league experience, plus one at Triple A, he's one of the most proven possibilities.

Seth McClung, a 22-year-old hard-throwing right-hander with a few months of Double-A experience, and Jon Switzer, a 23-year-old left-hander who spent his first full season at Class A, will get the chance to make impressions. Nick Bierbrodt, recovering from gunshot wounds, will too. As will young Mexican League products Gerardo Garcia and Edgar Huerta.

About the only thing that is set right now is that Joe Kennedy, the wily veteran who is all of 23 with 50 starts in the big leagues, will be at the front end of the rotation.

Otherwise ...

"I can't even go there," new pitching coach Chris Bosio said. "I honestly don't know. Lou Piniella does not know. We do not know as a staff right now. All we can do is ask people for their opinions, let the chips fall where they may, wish everybody luck and just tell them to bust their a--.

"Let's just say the guys that we have out there will be very competitive."

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