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Veteran pitchers hope they are in right place

Steve Parris and Jim Parque will try to stay healthy and provide some leadership for Rays.

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 22, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- When word trickled out in late December, Jim Parque's phone started ringing almost immediately.

The Dodgers called first. The Devil Rays, who rang at 6 one Friday morning, were second. Five teams in all spoke to Parque in an attempt to lure the free agent pitcher.

"Some of the offers that came in were quite flattering," said Parque, whom the White Sox declined to offer a contract after the 2002 season. "But this year is about opportunity. It's not about money. It's about picking the best place."

For a number of reasons -- the most relevant being the hiring of manager Lou Piniella and the departures of starting pitchers Tanyon Sturtze, Paul Wilson and Ryan Rupe -- the ideal spot for Parque and fellow veteran pitcher Steve Parris was Tampa Bay.

As many as four slots in the rotation are available this spring, and Piniella would like nothing more than to have some experience to go with the youth.

"We knew coming in that we were going to rely on a lot of young people," Piniella said. "We would love for more veteran pitching to first of all stay healthy, pitch well and solidify either our bullpen or starting rotation."

Parris, a 35-year-old right-hander, and Parque, a 27-year-old left-hander, have won more games (74) and logged more innings (1,2362/3) during their careers than nine returning Rays pitchers with at least one major-league start combined.

Nick Bierbrodt, Dewon Brazelton, Luis De Los Santos, Travis Harper, Delvin James, Joe Kennedy, Jorge Sosa, Victor Zambrano and Dan Reichert have started 167 games, won 63 in 1,2281/3 innings during their careers.

"You're only as old as you feel," said Parris, who was drafted by the Phillies in the fifth round in 1989 and pitched for the Blue Jays last season. "I'm good to go now. You go to other teams and I'm average.

"Just because I'm on this team and everybody is 23, 28 years old doesn't make it a big deal. Some of these guys have great arms. They've just got to learn how to pitch."

While both have successful track records and considerable experience, there is a catch. They're coming back after arm surgeries.

Parque, the first player taken in the 1997 draft to reach the majors, debuted for the White Sox in 1998 and had a 29-26 career record by the end of the 2000 season.

That postseason he started Game 1 of the American League division series against Piniella's Mariners and allowed three runs on six hits over six innings.

"The next day I couldn't pick up my arm," Parque said. "That was it. I tried pitching the next year (2001) and threw well. I was losing 3-2, 2-1 and things like that before I shut it down."

Diagnosed with a torn labrum, Parque missed most of 2001 after surgery but came back last season to throw more than 130 innings combined for Triple-A Charlotte and the White Sox.

"This is definitely an important year," he said. "I've had real good success in the past, have a lot of experience. I hit a little hump in the road. It just takes some time, but I really look at my experience of being hurt as kind of a positive thing.

"Even though I had to go through a lot of adversity, it made me a better pitcher because I didn't have my stuff. Now that my stuff is back, I feel that I'm going to be even better than I was."

Parris, who has appeared in 129 games with the Pirates, Reds and Blue Jays, finds himself in a similar situation. He started 19 games for the Blue Jays in 2001, then had rotator cuff surgery on his right shoulder that September.

He returned to the majors in June and went 5-5 with a 5.97 ERA for Toronto.

"I should be back," said Parris, whose best pitch is his fastball. "Last year I pretty much knew everything wasn't going to be there. No matter how hard I tried it wasn't quite going to be 100 percent.

"That didn't really affect my mentality. I just went out there and threw as much as I could for as long as I could. I kept trying to get back to 100 percent."

More than a week into spring training, the coaches, particularly pitching coach Chris Bosio, are pleased with the efforts from Parris and Parque.

"Both guys would be a complement (to the team)," Bosio said. "They're veteran guys that know how to pitch, that like to get quick outs.

"To their credit they've been able to adapt to some of the things that we've asked them to try. Being flexible is a good trait for these guys. ... It's only going to make their chances of finding a roster spot even better."

That they would be the most experienced in the starting rotation wouldn't be a problem. Both welcome the opportunity to pass along their knowledge to, and learn from, the younger players in the clubhouse.

"My role here is to win ballgames for the Devil Rays, no question about that," Parque said. "Obviously I have to make this team. If I do, I'll take it upon myself to help out the younger guys and help them along the way like other guys did for me when I came up in 1998."

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