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Piniella's big challenge is getting things sorted out

There are few sure things heading into camp as Tampa Bay works toward improving.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- They have cut their payroll significantly, gotten rid of their top pitchers and run producers, and plan to use as many young and unproven players as they can get on the field.

And the Devil Rays are shooting to get at least 15 games better.

Lou Piniella took on the challenge of his lifetime when he took the job as manager of his hometown Devil Rays, and he's going to start earning his money this spring, sifting through a major-league-high 73 invited players in trying to put a better team on the field.

"I love challenges," Piniella said. "I'm going to do everything in my power to get this thing moving in the right direction."

The Rays have a pretty good idea who the frontline position players are, though they have to work out where they are going to fit. The pitching staff, stripped almost bare from last year, is a different story. The team is starting camp with 39 pitchers, and could go through a half-dozen more by the end of the spring, trying to cobble a 12-man staff that can get people out.

"This thing is wide open," Piniella said. "Whoever wants a job can get it."

There is, as you can probably sense, plenty to do. Here are 10 questions to be answered in the six weeks before the March 31 opener.

Q : We have heard plenty about who is gone; so who is going to pitch in the rotation?

A: Left-hander Joe Kennedy, the 23-year-old veteran with 50 big-league starts, will be there. But that's about all we can tell you for now.

The Rays want/need Dewon Brazelton, the 2002 first-round draft pick, to show he belongs. From there, they will pick among returnees such as Victor Zambrano and Nick Bierbrodt (who has no options left, meaning he can't be sent to the minors without going on waivers), youngsters such as Jason Standridge and Mexican League imports Gerardo Garcia and Edgar Huerta, and comeback-minded veterans such as Jim Parque and Steve Parris. The team's preference would be to give the young pitchers the opportunity.

Q : And who is going to provide some relief?

A: The bullpen situation makes the rotation look stable. The Rays don't have anyone in camp who had more than two saves in the majors last season, so expect a true open call.

Lance Carter pitched well enough at the end of last season to receive primary consideration, and the Rays think Dan Reichert has the stuff to be an effective in middle relief. But otherwise, they are going to look at everyone from Mel Rojas, who has not pitched in the majors since 1999; to John Frascatore and Carlos Reyes, who didn't pitch in 2002; to kids such as Seth McClung and left-hander Jon Switzer, who both were in Class A at some point last season.

The availability of Jesus Colome, who was involved in a fatal car accident Feb. 6, remains in question.

Q : Will Lou lose his cool?

A: When seems to be more popular than if, with Phillies manager Larry Bowa -- a Piniella friend -- joking that he didn't know if Lou could make it to March 15.

Sure, Piniella is an emotional and temperamental manager who hates losing, and this team has the potential to lose more -- considerably more -- than any he has had (88 games in 1991). But he knew what he was getting himself into, and he knows better than to throw a fit for no reason. A big part of his job this spring is convincing the young players that they can win. Trying to do so while they are ducking flying water coolers wouldn't really help.

Q : Is rookie outfielder Rocco Baldelli really ready to play every day? And for that matter, what about Carl Crawford?

A: The Rays are hoping both 21-year-olds are, but neither is a sure thing.

Baldelli, the No. 6 pick in the 2000 draft, made a stunning rise from Class A to Triple A last season and seems poised for the next step. His speed and defense are major league, but there are some concerns about his offense. In particular, he has to learn to take more walks -- he had only five in 178 plate appearances above Class A, none in 23 Triple-A games. (He did have six in 142 Arizona Fall League appearances.) If he looks like he is overmatched, or if his stats look too ugly, look for him to go back to Triple A for a while. (One problem: there's no certain backup.)

Crawford, a second-round pick in 1999, made an impressive midseason debut last season, creating excitement anywhere he went on the field. But he hit only .231 from Aug. 1 on, and didn't show much power or steal many bases, so the Rays need to see more consistency.

Q : Where are the best position battles going to be?

A: Keep your eyes around second base. Hard-working Brent Abernathy had a rough time in his first full major-league season, hitting .242 overall, and .205 after the All-Star break, with only two home runs. Free-agent acquisition Marlon Anderson has a bit more juice in his bat (60 doubles, 19 homers the past two seasons), but led NL second baseman with 20 errors. Piniella also will consider Anderson as a Mark McLemore-type super utilityman.

At third base, Jared Sandberg will have to show he can cut down on his strikeouts; Aubrey Huff will have to show he can handle playing defense without it affecting his offense; and nonroster invitee Chris Truby will have to show he is back to being a prospect.

Most of the bench jobs also are open.

Q : Will Greg Vaughn make it to opening day?

A: Not if Friday's exchanges were indicative of what the spring will be like. GM Chuck LaMar made it clear Vaughn is going to have to show he deserves to have a spot on the team and not be released. And Vaughn fired back that he is ready to go and doesn't feel he has to prove anything.

If Vaughn shows he is healthy and close to his pre-Tampa Bay form, the Rays will find a place for him to play -- somewhere. If he struggles, say goodbye, with the Rays figuring they have to pay his $9.25-million salary anyway and are better off without him.

Q : Can Huff, Ben Grieve, Travis Lee, Sandberg and Vaughn even fit into the same lineup?

A: It's not going to be easy. Piniella says it will all be sorted out, and that Huff will fit somewhere. As much as Piniella has harped on the value of defense, it is hard to imagine he won't play Lee, a silky smooth fielder, at first. And it is harder to imagine Huff, who is not a silky-smooth fielder, would displace Sandberg at third. But if Huff is the DH, the only way for Grieve and Vaughn to be in the lineup is to play the outfield. That doesn't work if Crawford and Baldelli are ready, though it could suddenly become Plan A if one or both are not.

One guess: Lee at first, Huff at DH, Sandberg (or Truby) at third, Grieve in rightfield and Vaughn on the bench (as a reserve/pinch-hitter/DH) or in another uniform.

Q : Of these 34 nonroster guys, which ones actually have a chance to make the team?

A: Well, one catcher for sure, because there isn't anybody else. Jorge Fabregas is the most experienced, and Sandy Martinez has the next-most time in the big leagues, but Hector Ortiz could be a surprise.

Otherwise, it is going to be a matter of where the openings are. Truby could have a shot at third, maybe Lee Stevens as a utilityman. If the Rays don't keep Rule 5 pick Hector Luna or Antonio Perez as a backup infielder, there could be a spot for Gabby Martinez, Jay Canizaro or Justin Baughman.

The pitching situation will be handled the same way -- what openings are there?

Q : Which of the new players will help the most?

A: Shortstop Rey Ordonez, for sure. He may not be back to his three-time Gold Glove form, but he will be the most talented defensive player on these fields since Ozzie Smith's Cardinals trained here. Scouts say part of his problems were due to his supporting cast in New York.

Lee is considered one of the better defensive first basemen around. Perez, acquired in the Piniella deal, could be a future starting second baseman.

Q : Will there be any more changes during the spring?

A: Absolutely. They didn't even get through the first day of camp before adding their 73rd player and are going to keep looking throughout the spring. The last two weeks should be busy as teams make their final cuts. It's a safe bet several members on the opening-day roster aren't here yet.

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