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Rays think they are close to signing closer

Rays don't have the money but they have the role that Tom Gordon wants.

By TOM JONES
Published November 23, 2003

In a flash, the Devil Rays might have the closer they need.

Even though rookie Lance Carter saved 26 games last season, and has what the Rays believe is a bright future as a closer, Tampa Bay is making a hard pitch to sign Avon Park native Tom "Flash" Gordon.

And the feeling, at least among Rays manager Lou Piniella and GM Chuck LaMar, is Gordon could be in the fold by the time you carve your turkey this week.

Gordon has had one monster season as a closer. That was in 1998 when he converted 46-of-47 save opportunities for the Red Sox. He saved 27 games in 2001 for the Cubs, but started to have health issues after that.

Last season, though, Gordon rebounded with an impressive year: 7-6, 12 saves, 3.16 ERA in 66 games with the White Sox.

Several teams, including the suddenly cash-happy Phillies and the open-wallet Yankees, are interested in Gordon, but the Rays can offer something no other team can: a chance to be the closer. And, for Gordon, that might be worth more than the extra money the Phillies and Yankees are offering. If he went to Philadelphia or the Yankees, he would have to settle for being the setup man.

Something else might give the Rays the edge. The Phils and Yanks are offering Gordon one-year deals, but the Rays are willing to give Gordon the two-year deal he wants.

"I had a nice meeting with him (last week) and he seemed very interested," Piniella said. "Hopefully, it can work out."

SWING AND A MISS: The Rays were stung about missing out on starting pitcher Pat Hentgen, who signed with Toronto last week for one year, $2.2-million. The Rays offered more money, but Hentgen wanted to play for Toronto, where he pitched from 1991 to 1999.

The Rays still want to acquire one or two starters.

The line at spring training to earn a spot in the starting rotation will be long. There are those who finished last season in the rotation: Rob Bell, Jeremi Gonzalez, Jorge Sosa, Doug Waechter and Victor Zambrano.

Then there are prospects Dewon Brazelton and Chad Gaudin. There are new acquisitions Paul Abbott and John Halama, plus perhaps one or two more.

And, yes, there's Joe Kennedy, who went from opening-day starter to mop-up man and ended up going 3-12 with a 6.13 ERA.

"We're going to give Joe every opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation," Piniella said. "Joe just had a bad year; he's better than he showed last season."

THE NEW GUYS: Piniella is convinced Abbott and Halama, if healthy, can contribute in the rotation. That especially goes for Abbott, who won 17 games for Piniella's 2001 Mariners.

"Abbott's problems have been health-related," Piniella said. "If he stays healthy, he'll win for us. I believe that."

The early guess is the lefty Halama might do some work as a starter, but likely will be a swingman and work a lot of long relief.

D-BOW: Speaking of Brazelton, the former first-round pick dominated the Arizona Fall League. He was named the outstanding right-handed pitcher of the league and won the clinching championship game.

Delmon Young, the Rays' No. 1 pick last summer, went 20-for-48 in the fall league.

BIG BOPPER: Gary Sheffield is not coming to the Rays. But the Rays hope to acquire a bat that will look good hitting fourth behind Aubrey Huff. Prediction: Jose Cruz. Then, the Rays might still go after Tampa native Carl Everett.

SEEING RED: The word out of Cincinnati is Rays bench coach John McLaren is the favorite to get the Reds manager's job. He interviewed Friday, and the one man who can beat him out is Dave Miley, the interim manager late last season who will interview Monday. But Miley doesn't have the vote of everyone in the front office.

"I think Mac would do a great job and I hope he gets that opportunity," said Piniella, who has had McLaren on his staff for 12 years.

The natural replacement on the Rays staff would be Don Zimmer, who lives in Treasure Island and left the Yankees because he was sick and tired of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

REY OF HOPE: The Rays are talking to the agent of shortstop Rey Ordonez, but no offer has been made. Ordonez played well (.316 average and great defense) before going down with a knee injury on May 8. The Rays would love to have him back and move Julio Lugo to second, but they won't pay too much for him.

Either way, look for the Rays to add a middle infielder with major-league experience.

RAYS OPENINGS: The Rays have three coaching openings this season, the biggest one being minor-league pitching coordinator. That's the job Chuck Hernandez had before he replaced Chris Bosio as the Rays pitching coach.

The other openings are minor-league outfield/base running coordinator and pitching coach for rookie league Princeton.

TONY AND TINO: They're both from Tampa, but Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and former Cards first baseman Tino Martinez, acquired by the Rays on Friday, didn't always see eye to eye. But La Russa thinks Martinez will be a nice addition to the Rays.

"Tino is exactly what (Piniella) is looking for," La Russa said.

FREE-AGENT GUESSING GAME: Where are the big-name free agents going?

Though lots can happen, the feeling is Baltimore has the inside track on Montreal outfielder Vladimir Guerrero. The Yankees will land Sheffield. Oakland shortstop Miguel Tejada is leaning toward the Mariners. And left-hander Andy Pettitte will go to Houston if he doesn't return to the Yankees.

If the Yankees lose Pettitte and miss out on Bartolo Colon, who is being wooed heavily by the Angels, and Arizona's Curt Schilling, they'll try to land Expos starter Javier Vazquez.

SHORT HOPS: Why did the Twins trade A.J. Pierzynski, one of the game's better catchers? Mostly because former No. 1 pick Joe Mauer, considered a can't-miss star by most scouts, is ready to step in. ... Look for Frank Robinson to return as Expos manager. ... Lee Seung-Yeop, a 27-year-old Korean first baseman who hit an Asian-record 56 homers last season, reportedly was in Seattle last week checking out the city and the ballpark. He could be a replacement for John Olerud in a year or two. ... St. Louis' Albert Pujols is the 10th player to finish second in consecutive years in the MVP balloting. Hall of Famer Stan Musial finished second from 1949 to 1951.

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

[Last modified November 23, 2003, 01:46:45]

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