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Kids make bid to be solutions

MARC TOPKIN
Published August 31, 2003

OAKLAND, Calif. - Lou Piniella and Chuck LaMar have a plan for next season, and some would say that already puts the Devil Rays ahead of past years.

But until they find out from ownership how much their major-league-low payroll is going to increase next season (and, most likely, still be the lowest) and can start making concrete decisions, such as picking up options on Travis Lee (who has the right to decline) and Julio Lugo, or exploring a deal for Marlon Anderson, or thinking about a multiyear offer for Aubrey Huff, they are open to suggestions.

Especially from their young pitchers.

The plus side to the brutal parade of contenders the Rays will see over the final month is that the high level of competition will allow them to make some legitimate evaluations.

A few weeks ago, Piniella listed their offseason priorities as, in order, two starting pitchers, a right-handed power bat and an experienced closer. But if Doug Waechter or Jon Switzer emerges as a legitimate starting candidate, or if Chad Gaudin looks as if he could be the next Eric Gagne in the late innings, or if someone else steps forward unexpectedly, they could happily revise their shopping list.

"We have to bring a few experienced pitchers in, no question," Piniella said. "But if we see these young kids can hold their own and pitch reasonably well, it might change the mix a little bit. ... Depending on how they respond it could alter what we have to do, or not do, this winter from a pitching standpoint."

The opportunity to make this a September to remember isn't predicated solely on wins.

"What we want to see is how they respond, what kind of pitches they have and don't have, whether they have the presence, whether they have the confidence," Piniella said.

WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?: The Rays are supposed to be rooted in scouting and player development and, lately, there have been signs of success: Carl Crawford, Waechter and Seth McClung from the 1999 draft, plus maybe, still, Josh Hamilton; Rocco Baldelli and Mark Malaska from 2000; Switzer and Gaudin from 2001, with Joey Gathright coming and Dewon Brazelton coming back.

But ownership's hard-line budget restrictions are limiting their ability to scout and develop.

Word in baseball circles is that they aren't going to be able to call up all the players they'd hoped in September (though they were given the untoward option of cutting veterans to make payroll room); that they've taken many of their scouts off the road, limiting them to day-trip coverage (which some other teams do in September but one could argue the Rays shouldn't); and that they've cut their instructional league session back to about two weeks while some teams have six.

SHEFF'S SURPRISE: The idea of Gary Sheffield as a Devil Ray next season may not be as preposterous as some think.

Obviously money is going to be a major issue, how much the Rays can come up with vs. how much more the Braves might offer to keep him or the Yankees could offer to lure him, especially if he keeps up his MVP pace.

Sheffield, 34, is open to the idea of coming home, of being the force and the focus in the middle of the Tampa Bay lineup. But he'd want to do so only if the Rays had a chance to win, and he'd first have to be convinced they are going to make a few other additions, such as front-line pitching.

HOO-RAYS: Piniella and some friends bought a small stake in the Montgomery (Ala.) Biscuits minor-league team that will be the Rays' Double-A affiliate next season. ... Seattle star Ichiro Suzuki's initial impression of Baldelli: "Good wheels." ... Piniella is getting some ink as an AL manager of the year candidate. ESPN's Bobby Valentine, however, insists the Rays had the talent to win at least 70 games.

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