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Rays get their money's worth

Piniella sees potential on the 25-man roster despite a payroll of just $15-million.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 30, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- One way to look at the 25-man opening-day roster set Saturday by the Devil Rays is this: It's definitely the best $15-million squad in the game.

The fact that it's the only team with an on-field payroll that low trying to compete with teams paying in excess of $150-million is another issue, of course. Given the circumstances, however, the Rays are relatively pleased with the group of mostly inexperienced and inexpensive players they assembled to start the season Monday against Boston.

"It's fine," manager Lou Piniella said after ending the exhibition season Saturday at 8-19-3. "Obviously, we have to play better than we did in spring training, and I'm fairly confident we will. I'm looking forward to the start of the season and the challenge ahead."

The Rays finalized their roster -- for now -- by signing veteran Terry Shumpert to provide a much-needed right-handed bat and take the utility infield job from Hector Luna. The Rule 5 draft pick was designated for assignment and may have to be returned to Cleveland.

They also designated outfielder George Lombard, whom they claimed Friday and hope to get through waivers so he can play every day at Triple-A Durham, and pitcher Hans Smith, and reassigned catcher Hector Ortiz to minor-league camp. The day's moves allowed them to add outfielder Rocco Baldelli and pitchers Steve Parris and Jim Parque to the 40-man roster and opening-day squad.

The roster includes 18 players who were not on the team for last season's opener, and nine who are new to the organization. Thirteen have yet to spend a full season in the big leagues, including four of the eight starting position players.

"I think we have signed and developed an outstanding group of young players who are just now getting a true opportunity to perform at the major-league level," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "I like the group of veterans we've assembled to help develop these young players, but our future is truly in those young players. And we should be judged not only on our won-loss record but the progress they make."

The Rays will start a pair of 21-year-olds in the outfield, Carl Crawford and Baldelli, the first team to do so in 30 years. They'll have a catcher (Toby Hall) and a third baseman (Aubrey Huff) who have yet to spend a full season in the major leagues. Only three of their 12 pitchers have more than two years in the big leagues.

The reality, of course, is that they Rays are going to be outmanned on almost a nightly basis, especially competing in the rugged AL East. But they are looking forward to seeing how they do in the first step of Piniella's three-year plan to be competitive.

"We know we've got a tough road ahead of us," Piniella said.

The pitching staff may be young and relatively inexperienced, but Piniella and pitching coach Chris Bosio could not be happier with it, enough that they turned down a chance to bring in some veteran help last week.

"I'm pleased with the way the young pitching has come together," Piniella said. "As long as the double-deck stadiums don't bother them we're going to be all right."

The rotation of left-handers Joe Kennedy, Parque and Nick Bierbrodt and right-handers Victor Zambrano and Parris offers a mix of experience and styles.

The bullpen is even more interesting. It has hard throwers Seth McClung, Jorge Sosa and likely closer Jesus Colome, a control freak in Lance Carter, a versatile arm in Travis Harper, a hard-throwing left-hander in Bobby Seay and a specialist in submarine-style lefty Mike Venafro.

"We're going to give you a different look every night," Bosio said.

The offense is going to need some help, and Piniella plans to do what he can in terms of putting runners in motion and putting on hit-and-run and bunt plays.

He also will rely heavily on statistical information to take advantage of favorable matchups on a nightly basis, meaning the lineup will change frequently.

The plan is to bat Crawford and Baldelli at the top, with three left-handers -- Huff, Ben Grieve and Travis Lee -- in the middle. Hall is likely to be sixth and shortstop Rey Ordonez, the key to the vastly improved defense, ninth.

Against right-handed pitchers, Al Martin is likely to be the primary DH and hit seventh, with Grieve going back to rightfield. Against left-handers, Damian Rolls is likely to play right, with Grieve or Shumpert as the DH.

The competition at second base, and apparently the No.8 spot in the order, will continue into the season for Brent Abernathy and left-hander Marlon Anderson.

Shumpert, a 36-year-old 13-year veteran who was released by Los Angeles, Martin and catcher Javier Valentin were brought in to provide depth and stability, and Piniella is glad to have them. "We're taking small steps, but they're positive steps," he said.

More changes could be coming as other teams make their final cuts. Infielder Damion Easley, released Friday by Detroit, should clear waivers on Wednesday.

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