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Young, Cheap & Talented

For athleticism and potential, the Rays outfield might be baseball's most impressive.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 4, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - They don't have the raw power of some other outfield trios, such as Anaheim's Jose Guillen, Garret Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero, or Atlanta's Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and J.D. Drew.

They don't have the big names like the Yankees' Hideki Matsui, Bernie Williams and Gary Sheffield, or the big-dollar deals like Boston's Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon and Trot Nixon. They don't have the career accomplishments of Minnesota's Shannon Stewart, Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones, or the World Series rings like Florida's Jeff Conine, Juan Pierre and Miguel Cabrera.

But what the Devil Rays outfield trio of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Jose Cruz does have is pretty impressive: youth, talent, value, dazzling speed and as bright a future as any.

"When you consider their age, their experience, their potential and their salary," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said, "we might have the best outfield in baseball."

The three Rays are certainly among the top athletes in either league: Crawford led the AL in steals, Baldelli may be the fastest right-handed batter (and highest jumper) in the league, Cruz has won a Gold Glove and has had a 30-30 season.

Crawford and Baldelli at 22 are still among the youngest starters in the game, and Cruz hasn't turned 30. All three have the potential to be better than they've been. And together they're a bargain, combining to make just more than $3-million, about the same as the Yankees are paying Kenny Lofton to be their fourth outfielder.

"They're as athletic an outfield as there is in the big leagues," manager Lou Piniella said. "You've got three kids out there who can play centerfield. I think that says it all. We've got three centerfielders."

Said Cruz: "We have nothing to envy of anybody out there."

What sets the Rays apart most is the speed and athleticism, especially when they are running down balls in the outfield.

"On that turf we play on, we've got to cut those balls off in the gap and keep the singles singles instead of doubles," Piniella said. "And the doubles, let's keep them doubles instead of triples. And let's catch some balls in the gaps. And I'll tell you what, with this outfield that we have, we'll be able to do that as well as any outfield in the big leagues."

"Defensively, they can do it all," outfield/first-base coach Billy Hatcher said. "They can go get the ball, they can field the ball, they can throw you out. There's nothing they can't do. And the main thing is they keep getting better."

Baldelli has had one season in the big leagues, Crawford a year-and-a-half. Cruz is a veteran of seven and has already been working to help his new teammates, sharing tips on communicating and positioning. "With the stuff he tells us, we can only get better," Crawford said.

The benefits of having such a speedy outfield will be obvious by the number of diving, sliding and leaping catches that turn sure hits into outs, by the parade of runners thrown out, by the extra bases that aren't taken. Baldelli said it should be especially evident at Tropicana Field. "It's one of the fastest outfields there is once the ball hits the turf," he said, "and I think that gives us a good advantage over the teams we're playing."

There can be tangential benefits, too, especially to the psyche of a young pitching staff.

"It should make our pitchers more confident to throw strikes since we've got some gazelles who can run the ball down," backup catcher Brook Fordyce said. "If I was a pitcher, I wouldn't worry about balls in the gap because they might not happen with this outfield."

Or as pitcher Rob Bell said: "Just give it some hang time."

Defensively, the Rays have to be considered among the best, at least in the same park as the Twins are and the 2003 Mariners were, and maybe better if Baldelli plays with more grace and confidence this season. They not only run well but can throw, too: Cruz was second in the NL with 18 assists last season for NL-West champion San Francisco, Baldelli led the AL with 14 and Crawford was sixth with 10.

"You've got somebody who's been there and done that as far as the playoffs and Gold Glove in Cruz, and guys who are going to be there and do that in Crawford and Baldelli," Bell said.

Offensively, the Rays don't have anywhere near the power that outfields traditionally do. Cruz can be counted on for 25-30 homers, and though the other two are still growing and learning the pitchers, Baldelli might hit 15-20 now (and 25 or so in the future) and Crawford 10-15 for now (and maybe 20 later). But they can still be offensive forces if they hit for average and get on base enough to make use of their blazing speed, things they should improve on as they play more.

"Athletically we're one of the finest outfields in all of baseball," LaMar said. "And only with maturity will we be known as being as productive offensively as some of the elite outfields are."

Overall, they stack up pretty well.

"You've got guys here that are not just one-dimensional," Crawford said. "We've got all-around game."

Aubrey Huff might know better than anyone how good the Rays outfield can be. He played - rather well, actually - alongside Crawford and Baldelli last season but lost his job when the Rays signed Cruz.

"He's an upgrade out there, that's for sure," Huff said. "Defensively, speedwise, hitting for average, it's up there. It will be the fastest outfield in baseball, probably. And being as young as it is, I'd take this outfield out of any outfield in baseball. If you had to start a team right now, in the outfield I'd take those three."

[Last modified March 4, 2004, 01:15:01]

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