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Rays sing a familiar refrain: low payroll

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 23, 2003

The best way to look at the Devil Rays' decision to release Greg Vaughn on Saturday might be this: It's the end of an error.

Vaughn was the last link to the ill-fated attempt of the 1999-2000 offseason to build the fan base by bolstering the lineup with veteran players. Letting him go, general manager Chuck LaMar admitted, "was sort of that last payment for the mistakes we made."

So what's left?

How about a team on the field that will cost them just $15.175-million, about one-tenth of what the Yankees will spend, less than half of the next-lowest Expos and approximately $6-million less than Texas' Alex Rodriguez will make by himself. (It's also a 75 percent reduction from what they spent in 2000 and barely half of the 1998 inaugural payroll.)

Pending final roster decisions, it appears the Rays will have a mind-boggling 17 players making the major-league minimum $300,000 with four others at $400,000 or less.

Then there's $500,000 for Travis Lee, $600,000 for Marlon Anderson, $2-million of their money for Rey Ordonez (with the Mets paying the other $4.25-million) and $5.5-million for Ben Grieve (of which $1.5-million is deferred).

In essence, they have bottomed out. The season, especially with 38 games against the Yankees and Red Sox, will be rough; rough enough that avoiding 100 losses, much to Lou Piniella's disgust, might be cause for celebration.

But Rays officials prefer to view it as the start of something, that the talented kids -- about half of whom came through the farm system at some point -- will be better for the experience and that Vince Naimoli's ownership group will start spending money again next season.

"I truly believe this is the last year of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays reducing payroll," LaMar said. "From here on out, I see us increasing payroll each year on the way to becoming a successful franchise.

"We're finally reaping the benefit of years of quality scouting and player development. If this group of young players develop as they should, this will be the year we all look back on and say we finally turned the corner and are headed in the right direction."

NOW WHAT: With Vaughn gone, the Rays certainly could use some power, but without any money to spend, that's not an easy task. Their best shot might be picking up somebody else's mistake, such as Carl Everett if he gets released by Texas.

Wednesday could be a big day because it's the deadline for teams to release players without paying their full salary.

Vaughn, meanwhile, could draw interest from Baltimore, which is looking for right-handed hitting.

HOO-RAYS: Mets first baseman Mo Vaughn said Rays fans "are going to see some things they've never seen before" from shortstop Ordonez. ... Rays officials are hoping they are chosen to go with the Yankees to open next season in Japan. Some lobbying from Yankees boss George Steinbrenner wouldn't hurt. ... MLB president Bob DuPuy is the featured speaker for Saturday's Rays of Hope Grand Slam Gala at Tropicana Field. All players and coaches will attend. Tickets are $175. Call (727) 825-3470 for information. ... The expanded sponsorship agreement with Kane's Furniture includes a "premium furniture showcase" in the stadium just in case you get that familiar between-innings urge to buy a new leather couch.

HEADS YOU WIN: Royals manager Tony Pena might have had the most novel way of deciding between Jeremy Affeldt and Runelvys Hernandez for the opening day start. He called them into his office and flipped a coin.

"I believe both of those kids deserved the opportunity to be the opening day pitcher," Pena said. "I don't want either one of them to feel bad about it. So we just flipped a coin."

Affeldt called heads. The coin came up tails. Hernandez, a 24-year-old who was 4-4 in 12 starts last season, will start.

And, yes, it's okay to wonder if Pena's bigger problem is the choices were Affeldt and Hernandez.

BAKER'S BLUES: Piniella isn't the only new manager going through something of an, um, adjustment period.

In Chicago, Dusty Baker must deal with a spring filled with injuries (the latest being closer Alfonso Alfonseca, who is out for the first month of the season) and illness (31 players and staff treated for one ailment or another, including ace Kerry Wood).

"It's not the way I pictured starting my Cubs career; full of question marks," Baker said.

TRAM, TOO: Detroit's Alan Trammell has had a different kind of problem. His starting pitchers have been so unimpressive that he might have to give out spots in the rotation by default.

"We have to take somebody," Trammell said. "I hate to put it that way."

RED, WHITE & BLUE PINSTRIPES: Yankees manager Joe Torre doesn't believe the game should be shut down because of the war.

"We lose the war if all of a sudden we lock ourselves inside our houses," Torre said. "Baseball is part of the American scene, and we have to go on with it."

CHECKING IN: Russ Johnson, whose 2002 season with the Rays was interrupted when he left the team to be treated for depression and anxiety, said life on and off the field is going well.

"Everything's great," said Johnson, who is competing for a backup job with the Mets. "The family's healthy. I'm healthy. Life's good. I get to go to work for 31/2-4 hours a day playing baseball and acting like a kid. It doesn't get any better than this."

Johnson continues to feverishly preach about his religious revelations but said he is learning to limit the talk in certain situations. Apparently not with reporters, however.

MISCELLANY: Even though the A's made the unusual move of announcing they won't make an offer to keep star Miguel Tejada, they insist they don't plan to trade him. ... With the money they won't have to pay Bubba Trammell next year, the Padres plan to pursue a high-profile shortstop such as Tejada or Japan's Kazuo Matsui. ... The Marlins say they've gotten up to the equivalent of 4,000 full-season ticket packages. ... The Indians will start three rookies (catcher Josh Bard, first baseman Travis Hafner and second baseman Brandon Phillips) for the first time since 1975, when they had Duane Kuiper, Rick Manning and Alan Ashby. ... Pirates catcher Jason Kendall was found to have an astigmatism that caused nearsightedness. He is wearing contact lenses.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in compiling this report.

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