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Rays give their pitchers a hand

The club sees its best chance to improve in an upgraded defense.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 20, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- He's not a large man, barely 5 feet 9, and he doesn't carry a very big stick. But just by showing up for Wednesday's first full-squad workout and walking on the field with his glove, Rey Ordonez made the Devil Rays better.

Without the money to bolster their anemic offense or to improve, or even maintain, their league-worst pitching staff, the Devil Rays decided during the offseason that their best defense was, well, a better defense.

So they traded for Ordonez, the three-time Gold Glove-winning shortstop who badly needed an escape from New York; commited to giving rookie Rocco Baldelli an extensive opportunity to win the centerfield job alongside the equally fleet Carl Crawford; brought in first baseman Travis Lee, who has been one of the National League's top defenders, as well as Lee Stevens on a minor-league deal; and signed athletic Marlon Anderson to compete for the second-base job.

"The difference in most championship clubs is defense," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "Everyone knows you've got to have enough pitching to win and everyone knows the game is seeming to become more offensive every year, but the common denominator is almost every championship club has outstanding defense.

"Whether you're a building organization like ourselves or a team coming off a World Series championship, it's the constant. It's what comes to the ballpark every day. And I don't think you can win without it."

Since a second-place ranking in their 1998 inaugural season, the Rays have been in the bottom half of American League teams in fielding percentage and errors made each season. On a not-unrelated note, they've had some of the highest totals of runs, earned and unearned, allowed.

Because this year's pitching staff likely is going to be extremely young and incredibly inexperienced, it's hard to imagine how things won't be worse. But that's where the Rays expect Ordonez, as well as Lee, Anderson, Baldelli and others, to lend a gloved hand.

"How do you help a young pitching staff out the best? By catching more baseballs," manager Lou Piniella said. "That helps as much as anything."

Bench coach John McLaren said the value of good defense is obvious, specifically in terms of reducing the number of extra outs that lead to long innings and getting to balls that otherwise would fall in for hits.

"We've improved our pitching with our defense, no question," McLaren said. "I think that's something that's going to stick out with Rey at shortstop and having speed in the outfield. It's going to be a big plus for a pitcher to have confidence of not thinking he has to strike every hitter out."

The improvement starts with Ordonez, who is confident he can get back to the form that made him one of the game's elite defenders from 1997-99. Since coming back from a broken left arm that cost him most of the 2000 season, Ordonez's performance has dropped off and his errors have gone up (12 in 2001; 19 last season, though eight in the first 13 games).

"Being in Tampa is like starting my career all over again," Ordonez said through a team interpreter. "Last year I did okay, and I'm working hard to have a better defense than the organization had the last two seasons."

Piniella is equally confident: "He can really, really solidify our infield. We feel he's going to do very well."

Rays who have seen him play know how much difference he can make.

"He's unbelievable," said reliever Mel Rojas, a Mets teammate in 1997-98. "He makes plays look so easy."

"He takes away so many hits," outfielder Greg Vaughn said. "I know he took a whole lot away from me over time."

Ordonez will be the best defensive shortstop the Rays have had, and the same can be said about Lee at first base. Baldelli has the chance to be their top centerfielder, and Crawford's speed makes him special, too.

Piniella has been stressing defense more than Monte Kiffin, but at some point he is going to face some tough decisions, such as whether to try Aubrey Huff at third ahead of smoother fielding Jared Sandberg, whether to play Vaughn and/or Ben Grieve in the outfield and whether to make Anderson the everyday second baseman ahead of Brent Abernathy or a super utilityman.

"The better defensive team I can put on the field, the more games we're going to win, I can tell you that," Piniella said. "We'll see how it shakes itself out. I'm open, totally open."


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