ST. PETERSBURG - The Devil Rays are ready to go on the offensive.
By the time the winter meetings end Dec. 16, general manager Chuck LaMar expects to have filled the large hole in the middle of the batting order.
"Our team for 2004 will get better in the next 10 days," LaMar said Friday.
With the market for pitchers crowded now and expected to be flooded after the Dec. 20 contract-tendering deadline, the Rays are willing to wait and see how much pitching they can get with their limited funds.
But they are ready and willing to spend this week to improve the offense and appear to have narrowed their focus to free-agent outfielders Jose Cruz, Carl Everett and Juan Gonzalez.
Cruz, at 29, is the youngest and most athletic. And he's a switch-hitter, which manager Lou Piniella likes. He hit .250 with 20 home runs and 68 RBIs for San Francisco while winning a Gold Glove in rightfield, though he had a rough postseason. Piniella had him in Seattle in 1997 and tried to get him last year. The Rangers, Cubs and Brewers are reportedly also interested. With Cruz joining Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli in a smooth outfield, Aubrey Huff would be primarily a DH.
Everett, 32, would bring a toughness and an attitude along with a potent bat and would give Piniella the switch-hitter he craves. The Tampa native hit .287 with 28 homers and 92 RBIs for the Rangers and White Sox last season and has matured into somewhat of a leader. Everett's offense is better than his defense, so it's not clear whether he or Huff would play rightfield. The Rockies are among others interested.
Gonzalez has, by far, the most power of the three - the 24 homers he hit in 82 games last season for Texas (with a .294 average and 70 RBIs) would have ranked second on the Rays for the season, and he has averaged 42 homers over his past five full seasons. But he's 34, he missed half of last season with a calf injury, has been on the disabled list in seven of 13 big-league seasons and played more than 115 games only once in the past four years, and has had something of an attitude problem in previous stops. He has a strong arm but his injury problems could force him to DH. The Royals are among those interested.
If the price were the same (say $3-million to $4-million a season) and the Rays knew he would be healthy all season and play nice with others, Gonzalez would be the best fit. But if they can only sign one, and that certainly appears to be the case with a major-league low player payroll budget in the $25-million range, they really can't afford to gamble. The choice then would be between Cruz's defense and Everett's firepower. As long as Everett can be happy on a losing team, he seems to be the better fit.
Once the Rays get their hitter, they'll look to fill other holes. They may have interest in infielder Tony Graffanino, and pitchers such as Miguel Batista and John Thomson could be on the radar depending on their price tags. And they'll need a veteran backup catcher.
RAYS RUMBLINGS: If, as expected, the season-opening trip to Japan is made official this week, the preliminary schedule has the Rays leaving March 25, playing exhibitions March 28-29 and regular-season games against the Yankees March 30-31, then returning home early April 1. After missing eight spring training games (included one planned for Tropicana Field against the Braves), they'd likely play exhibitions on April 2-3 before heading to New York for what was their scheduled opener April 5 at Yankee Stadium.
One person the Rays won't see in Japan is former teammate Steve Cox, released by Yokohama after missing most of the first season of his three-year contract because of a right knee injury. Cox, according to the Kyodo News Agency, will be paid for the remaining two seasons on his $2.75-million contract. ... Brent Abernathy, another ex-Ray, signed a minor-league deal with Detroit. ... Pitcher Delvin James signed a minor-league deal with the Marlins. ... The Yankees, Pirates and Dodgers are among teams supposedly interested in Travis Lee.
LOCAL YOKELS: Now that Tampa Chamberlain High graduate Dave Miley is the Reds' official full-time manager, look for him to put Tampa Catholic product and Dunedin native Donnie Scott on his big-league coaching staff.
Miley, 41, spent 23 years in the organization before being named interim manager midway through last season. "I just wanted this opportunity in the big leagues," said Miley, drafted by the Reds out of high school in 1980 as a shortstop and turned into a catcher. "With major-league meal money I'll be able to put back on the pounds I sweated off worrying about whether I'd get it."
MISCELLANY: Expect big rumors all week about some of the game's biggest names, topped by steady chatter about Alex Rodriguez going to Boston for Manny Ramirez, with the Sox then trading Nomar Garciaparra to the Angels, Dodgers or Padres. ... The Orioles are pursuing Vladimir Guerrero, though the Braves could get involved. ... Greg Maddux seems headed to an NL West team. ... The Mariners made a three-year, $24-million offer to SS Miguel Tejada, who is also being pursued by Anaheim and Detroit, among others. ... The Mets appear to be the front-runners for Japanese shortstop Kazuo Matsui. ... Anaheim's reported four-year, $48-million offer may be the best Bartolo Colon gets. ... The Cubs have expressed interest in Pirates catcher Jason Kendall.
- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.