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So far, at least, happy new year

By MARC TOPKIN
Published January 11, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - The first game still is 79 days away, but the Devil Rays already have had a good year.

Good enough that managing general partner Vince Naimoli was willing to throw in some extra money for the latest additions (with possibly another pitcher to come). Good enough that it now seems more likely than not that general manager Chuck LaMar will get an extension when his contract expires at season's send. Good enough that when manager Lou Piniella talks about the renovated roster, there is a smile on his lips and almost mischievous sparkle in his eyes.

"It's a nice little ballclub," Piniella said.

Without spending much more than $10-million, LaMar has acquired 13 big-league players, including a Gold Glove outfielder (Jose Cruz), an experienced closer (Danys Baez), a starting shortstop (Rey Sanchez), and four quality bench players (Robert Fick, Deivi Cruz, Brook Fordyce, Eduardo Perez).

Piniella, obviously, likes who they have added, figuring there have been significant upgrades to their offense, defense and bullpen and, at least, depth added to the rotation.

What he really seems to like is the sum of the parts, knowing the Rays have amassed enough talent that players no longer will get jobs in the majors without earning them.

Five weeks before spring training, the Rays appear to have at least 14 legitimate major-league position players for 13 spots: outfielders Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Jose Cruz and Aubrey Huff; infielders Geoff Blum, Sanchez, Julio Lugo and Tino Martinez; catcher Toby Hall; and reserves Damian Rolls, Deivi Cruz, Fick, Fordyce and Perez. It could come down to Rolls and Deivi Cruz for the final utility spot.

With Baez at the back of the bullpen and Lance Carter handling the eighth inning, there will be serious competition among right-handers Jesus Colome, Chad Gaudin, Travis Harper, Jorge Sosa, Rule 5 draftee Alec Zumwalt and a few others for three spots. Trever Miller and John Halama are the likely lefties, with Jon Switzer and Bobby Seay other possibilities.

The rotation, for now, includes Victor Zambrano, Jeremi Gonzalez, Doug Waechter and Mark Hendrickson, with Paul Abbott, Dewon Brazelton, Rob Bell, non-roster invitee Dicky Gonzalez, Halama and Sosa trying to earn a spot.

Too many quality players isn't a problem - the Rays can stash the excess at Triple A or, more likely, look to make a spring training trade for more pitching.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: Fick wanted a starting job but said one of the reasons he agreed to a reserve role with the Rays was the promise of a chance to get back behind the plate, where he started his career. "They told me I'd get a chance to show them I can catch," Fick said. At the least that gives Piniella the immense flexibility of three catchers. With the signing of Fordyce, a former starter, it could put pressure on starter Hall to get off to a good start. ... Injured pitcher Matt White, designated for assignment Friday, hasn't provided a return on the $10.2-million the Rays invested in him, but it's not for lack of effort or desire. ... Huff, who wanted to stay with the Rays even before getting a three-year, $14.5-million contract, said he has been told that he would DH about half the time while getting starts in rightfield and at first base. "You don't want to be a 27-year-old DH," he said. ... Huff and Naimoli will make a quick trip to Japan this month to promote the season-opening series with the Yankees.

BUDDING ROSE: Don Zimmer, who has known Pete Rose since he was in diapers because he grew up in Cincinnati and played softball with Rose's dad, doesn't think the publicity generated by the new book was a good idea.

"I kind of have the feeling that he'd be almost better off if this was never brought up again," Zimmer said. "I can't see where all this is helping him any. I hate to say that. It's just my opinion. A lot of people are changing their way of thinking about the whole situation."

Statistically, Rose is an automatic choice for the Hall of Fame if reinstated. But voters seem suddenly aware that guidelines for election include the words "integrity, sportmanship, character."

HALL CALL: While Rose's status is unclear, Tampa's Wade Boggs will be on the next ballot and will be, by far, the leading choice to be elected.

Other first-timers will include Tom Candiotti, Chili Davis, Willie McGee and Jeff Montgomery. A more likely candidate is Ryne Sandberg, who, without getting another hit, gained 65 votes from his first year on the ballot to his second.

Joe Carter was shocked to get only 19 votes, seven shy of the minimum to stay on the ballot. "Total disbelief," he said. "It will probably befuddle me all the way to my grave."

MISCELLANY: The Cubs are talking about an offensive lineup with Mark Grudzielanek at shortstop ahead of Alex Gonzalez and Todd Walker at second. They're also talking quietly about signing Pudge Rodriguez and/or Greg Maddux. ... The Pirates have interest in ex-Ray Travis Lee. ... Former Rays coach Terry Collins could end up as Boston's third-base coach. ... The Phillies are looking to bring back outfielder Doug Glanville.

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

[Last modified January 11, 2004, 01:33:09]

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