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Bright future

For the first time, the Rays believe a losing record hides real progress and they plan to build on that.

MARC TOPKIN
Published September 28, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - The 62 victories or, more to the point, the 99 losses make it clear this Devil Rays season, like the five before it, was a losing proposition.

But this time, there might be a late scoring change.

As the Rays today wrap up a sixth straight season of finishing last and, after Saturday's 5-4 win, try to avoid a third straight 100-loss season, general manager Chuck LaMar and manager Lou Piniella say it is what happens in the future that ultimately will determine if the past six months were a success.

"If the pain we went through this year doesn't help us win more games in the next year or two, then it's all been for naught," LaMar said. "I truly believe we will see the benefits of this year more so in years to come than we did this year from a win-loss standpoint."

Their thinking is this: By using as many young players as much as they did, they were able to evaluate what they had - accelerating the development of some and finding out sooner than later that others aren't ready, or won't be able, to help - and define what they need. With a commitment from ownership to increase the payroll, giving them an expected $10-million to $15-million to bring in established impact players, they have the chance to improve the talent base. Starting tonight, their full attention will be on getting it done.

"You go through this for a reason," Piniella said. "A 60-something win season is a success if we go out and improve our situation next year."

Though wins and losses are, of course, the ultimate scale, Piniella said the Rays' record is the only thing he isn't satisfied with in the first of his four-year contract.

He has seen enough talented young players, enough improvement from them, enough hard work and scrappy play, enough change in the mind-set, to feel positive - "more positive than when I came here" - that there is a solid nucleus around which a winning team can be built.

"We set out to develop, we set out to grow, we set out to evaluate, we set out to teach, and that's exactly what we've done this year," Piniella said. "We've gotten this thing to this point; if we want to take the next step forward, we've got to go out and improve it. Our needs are defined. Let's go out this winter and shore it up as much as possible. With the nucleus we have here, with the proper improvements, we can take this thing to the next level."

Given the development of some young pitchers and what they foresee as a favorable free-agent market, the Rays will set out to add offense, seeking two outfield/DH-type hitters for the middle of the order, then some veteran relief help.

They likely will start by swinging for the fences in pursuing a deal to bring home slugger Gary Sheffield but may find out they can't get that much bang for their bucks. Similarly, they'll likely go after veteran closer Tom Gordon, though they may not be able to afford that much relief.

What's encouraging is that they're trying. After three consecutive winters of reducing payroll and bemoaning their self-inflicted financial woes, the Rays at least will make an attempt to get better, with the hope their dwindling fan base will respond.

The key issues, LaMar said, are how much additional money they get (and how creative ownership allows him to be in terms of multiyear offers and/or deferred money) and how they decide to use it. Their last foray into the market, in the 1999-2000 offseason, wasn't exactly the hit show they were expecting.

"We cannot make many mistakes," said LaMar, who heads into the final year of his contract with no talk of another extension. "How much we have and how we spend it will be critical."

Before they get to the free-agent market, they have decisions to make on current players, with options on first baseman Travis Lee ($2.5-million, mutual) and shortstop Julio Lugo ($1.75-million) and negotiations pending with shortstop Rey Ordonez (a free agent who wants to come back) and second baseman Marlon Anderson (who is arbitration-eligible and could end up nontendered). A multiyear deal with Aubrey Huff, possibly headed for a $3-million payday through arbitration, also could be discussed.

Another major factor is continued improvement by the players they have. Huff went from solid regular to certified star in one season; the Rays can only hope Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Doug Waechter and other youngsters make the same jump. They have to hope Jeremi Gonzalez and Victor Zambrano can be the foundation of the rotation, Lance Carter can be a dependable late-inning reliever and catcher Toby Hall and third baseman Damian Rolls continue to increase their production.

"I think Lou's going to make a lot of moves, and the front office, too," Gonzalez said. "I think we're going to be a contending team next year."

That seems farfetched for a team that even with an increase to $30-million is likely to have the lowest payroll in the majors. But the Rays only have to look at the standings for inspiration.

The Marlins, fortified by solid acquisitions, went from 73-89 last season to a Tuesday playoff game in San Francisco. The Royals went from 100 losses last season to contending into September for the division title and a plus-.500 record.

"I see us two years down the road trying to do what (the Marlins) have done," Piniella said. "Next year, I see improvement to around the .500 level. That's what I see. If we could do something similar next year to what Kansas City did this year, I think everybody would be very pleased. Very pleased. That's what we're going to try to do for next year."

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