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Now batting ...

The Devil Rays see plenty of balance and promise in their tentative starting lineup.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published February 20, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - The final version won't be known for weeks, not until after dozens of exhibitions and hundreds of conversations, but you have to start somewhere.

And as Lou Piniella ponders the alignment of the Devil Rays lineup for the coming season, he wants to start with speed at the top, power bunched in the middle and versatility sprinkled throughout.

With the full squad working out together today for the first time, Piniella unveiled the preliminary lineup that he will work off of over the next six weeks until the March 30 opener: Carl Crawford, Julio Lugo and Rocco Baldelli at the top; Aubrey Huff, Jose Cruz and Tino Martinez in the middle; and platooning third basemen Geoff Blum and Damian Rolls, Toby Hall and Rey Sanchez at the bottom.

"That gives us speed and power and a good mix of left- and right-handed hitting all the way through," Piniella said. "I like the look and feel of that. We can try different things in the spring, and we will. But that's a nice, balanced lineup."

"Pretty solid," Hall said.

Piniella prefers an aggressive style, and that lineup should allow the Rays to get things started quickly.

Crawford, Lugo and Baldelli combined for 92 stolen bases last season, including Crawford's AL-leading 55, and all three should be able to increase their total, as well as their on-base percentages and averages this season.

Huff, coming off a tremendous season (.311 with 34 homers and 107 RBIs), fits nicely in the cleanup hole and should benefit from having the speedsters on base ahead of him and Cruz and Martinez behind him.

By putting Cruz, a switch-hitter, in the No.5 hole, Piniella breaks up his top left-handed hitters, forcing an opposing manager to possibly use three pitchers to get through a crucial inning.

Blum is a switch-hitter but hits better left-handed (.274 vs. .135 last season, .268 vs. .231 for his career). Unless Blum wins the job outright, Rolls is likely to play against left-handed pitchers (career average: .268).

Hall rarely strikes out (40 times in 498 plate appearances) and has the potential to show some power, hitting 12 homers last season. Sanchez is known for his glove but is a .290 career hitter in the American League.

"The first three guys give you a combination of speed and power, good power in the middle, then toward the end you've got contact and some lefty-righty hitting," Piniella said.

Piniella likes the way that lineup works but said he is more than open to change. And he made it clear he is also willing to consider other candidates and combinations.

"That's what it looks like to me going in, but we'll see. That's what spring training is for," he said. "If one of the bench players wants an everyday job, that's always there for the taking. So we'll see."

[Last modified February 20, 2004, 01:31:57]

Today's lineup
>
MARC TOPKINNow batting ...
MARC TOPKINPiniella eager for bonding to begin


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DAMIAN CRISTODEROReasons to feel blue
DAMIAN CRISTODEROAndreychuk involved in power struggle


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