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Spring Training 2004

Difficult decisions to be made

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 4, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - One of the central themes of the Devil Rays training camp is how the addition of so many quality players has reduced the number of questions that need to be answered.

But that doesn't mean general manager Chuck LaMar, manager Lou Piniella and the coaching staff are going to have it easy.

Because the Rays have added better players, the choices that they do have to make are going to be much more difficult. And because the Rays leave March 25 for the season-opening trip to Japan, they will have to make those decisions much sooner than usual.

"Guys are going to have to impress a little earlier this year than normal," Piniella said.

Here is a position-by-position breakdown of what the Rays have, and what they'll be looking for during the three-week exhibition season that starts Saturday.

PITCHERS

Starters

SPRING FLING: Victor Zambrano and Jeremi Gonzalez were the top two starters last season and the Rays expect them to pick up where they left off and improve from there.

The makeup of the rest of the rotation is the biggest unknown, and it could be an ongoing story because the Rays may open the season with four starters due to a light April schedule. There's also a chance they'll look to acquire a top starter in a late-spring trade.

Left-handers are a good thing in the AL East, so it's likely that Damian Moss, who is out of minor-league options, or Mark Hendrickson, the 6-foot-9 former NBA player, or both, will be in the final mix. But they will face some tough competition, principally from rookie right-hander Doug Waechter, who was impressive in a six-game preview in September, and veteran Paul Abbott, a 17-game winner for Piniella's 2001 Mariners. Rob Bell, Dewon Brazelton and John Halama are also candidates.

UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: The common logic is that Brazelton, who was dropped from the majors to Class A last season, needs to go back to the minors to continue rebuilding his delivery and his confidence. But Brazelton already looks like a different pitcher and has been sharp early in camp. He is confident to begin with, and if he gets on a roll, he could pitch his way right back onto the team.

Relievers

SPRING FLING: The Rays feel they made their whole bullpen better by bringing in Danys Baez as the closer, moving Lance Carter to a setup role and signing Trever Miller as a left-handed specialist.

Now they have to see how it all works out.

Baez was inconsistent in revolving roles with Cleveland, but the Rays are hoping he will settle in and become the dominant power closer Piniella favors. Carter, who was Tampa Bay's 2003 All-Star, will be used as a one- or two-inning setup man, with help from Miller, who led the AL last season with 79 appearances.

While those three seem set, the competition for the remaining four or five spots could be the most heated in camp.

Piniella will want to carry at least one more lefty, with Halama the likely leading candidate and Mike Holtz, Jon Switzer and Bobby Seay other possibilities.

At best, that could leave four spots for right-handers (at least until late April when they need a fifth starter), and at least eight legitimate candidates.

Among pitchers who were with the Rays last year, Jorge Sosa and Chad Gaudin could have a bit of an edge based on early impressions. Travis Harper, Jesus Colome, Carlos Reyes and Bell have all had success at times.

Among the non-roster veterans trying to win a job, there is Mike Williams (a two-time All-Star who has 143 saves over the last five seasons), Todd Jones (who had 42 saves for Detroit in 2000), Alan Mills, Al Reyes, and former Mariners Ken Cloude and Abbott. There is also Rule 5 draftee Alec Zumwalt.

"This is where I think you're going to see real competition," LaMar said.

UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Sosa may be the least accomplished of the incumbents, but Piniella loves his arm. He seemed to harness his ability during an impressive winter ball performance, and if he can show that consistency this spring, he'll have a job.

CATCHERS

SPRING FLING: Toby Hall didn't have a bad 2003 season. He led the majors by throwing out 41.3 percent of attempted basestealers, hit .253 with 12 homers and 47 RBIs, and got better at calling the game the way Piniella wants.

But, life behind the plate can be a constant battle. If Hall gets off to a slow start or doesn't show the desired improvement, the Rays have quality alternatives in veterans Brook Fordyce, the former Orioles starter, and Robert Fick, who is intent on re-establishing himself at least as a solid backup.

UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Fick came up as a catcher and was pretty good. If he looks comfortable behind the plate and keeps hitting, he could work his way into the lineup on at least an occasional basis.

INFIELDERS

First base

SPRING FLING: Tino Martinez and Fred McGriff have been close friends, Tampa guys and two of the game's most productive first baseman. They're teammates for now, though the Rays signed McGriff with the intent of showcasing him for other teams. But Martinez could still have company since the Rays have three other potential first baseman in DH Aubrey Huff and bench players Eduardo Perez and Fick. Martinez gets first shot at the job, but the Rays will use the spring to gauge how much he should play, how much Perez and/or Fick deserve to play, and whether not playing much in the field affects Huff's offense.

UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: The Rays made it very clear they didn't sign McGriff with the intention of keeping him. But if he has a good spring, and continues to be a good influence in the clubhouse, the appeal of him hitting his 500th homer in a Rays uniform might be too much for ownership to pass up, even though it could force a deal of some sort.

Second base

SPRING FLING: When the Rays signed free agent Rey Sanchez at the winter meetings, they said he would play shortstop and Julio Lugo would move to second. After thinking more about it, Piniella decided to at least start spring training with Lugo at short and Sanchez at second. Whether he intends to keep them that way, or just wants to let them play their way out of it, remains to be seen.

Sanchez says he is comfortable in either spot, and will be comfortable with whatever Piniella decides. He is a smooth and, at times, spectacular defender who makes the infield better no matter where he plays. While he's known for his glove, a .290 career average in the AL isn't bad.

UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Antonio Perez dropped off significantly after an impressive July last season. It may take more than a good spring, but he could re-establish himself as the second baseman of the future.

Shortstop

SPRING FLING: If Lugo plays short, the concern will be his occasionally erratic throws. If Sanchez plays short, the concern will be his stamina. No matter who plays short, there is a good chance prospect B.J. Upton will have their job by Sept. 1.

As a result, the decision at shortstop could be predicated, at least in part, by who they want to play second in the future. If Lugo is going to move to second when Upton comes up, they might as well move him now. If they don't plan on making Lugo their second baseman, they might as well keep him at short until Upton takes over.

UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: The tentative plan is for Upton to open the season at Double-A and make it to the majors in September. With a solid spring, he could accelerate the process.

Third base

SPRING FLING: The Rays are looking at the sum of the parts by planning to platoon versatile utilitymen Geoff Blum and Damian Rolls. Blum, acquired from Houston, is a switchhitter who is much better as a lefty. He came up as a shortstop and can play anywhere in the infield or outfield. The same could be said for Rolls, a right-hander with above-average speed who came up as a third baseman. Piniella says he is open to one of the two winning the job outright, but that seems unlikely.

UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Deivi Cruz has been a big-league starter for the past seven seasons at shortstop, combining a steady glove with occasional power. With a solid spring, he could follow in the footsteps of Alex Rodriguez and slide over to third base. A longer shot is Fernando Tatis, who is trying to re-establish himself after several inconsistent and injury-shortened seasons.

OUTFIELDERS

SPRING FLING: The Rays couldn't be too much happier with what they have, a trio of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Jose Cruz that is the youngest, fastest and has perhaps the brightest future of any in the game.

Crawford had a huge second half after hitting coach Lee Elia opened up his stance, hitting .281 overall with 54 RBIs and an AL-high 55 stolen bases. Piniella expects him to continue to get better, saying a batting title and Gold Glove are possible.

Baldelli, coming off a dazzling rookie season that included an AL-high 14 assists, added 10-12 pounds of muscle to combat the fatigue that led to him hitting .257 in August-September.

All Cruz did was win a Gold Glove last season for San Francisco with 18 assists. While he had a bit of an off season offensively, hitting .250 with 20 homers, the Rays expect him to prosper being under Elia's tutelage again.

And when one needs a break, Huff will go back into rightfield, where he played surprisingly well last season. Plus, Rolls, Blum, Fick and Eduardo Perez can all play in the outfield.

UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Joey Gathright should go back to the minors so he can play every day and continue his development, but his potential to change a game with his blazing speed could grow on Piniella and LaMar.

DESIGNATED HITTER

SPRING FLING: Huff's reward for the best offensive season in Rays history was a three-year, $14.5-million contract and a move into the DH role. He's not keen about doing it full time at 27 years old, but his past performance has been good: .305 as a DH, .290 in the field. Piniella promised him he'll get time on the field in rightfield and at first base and plans to rotate the other outfielders into the DH slot.

UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: If Fick continues his impressive spring, he'll have to get at-bats somewhere. One possibility would be to let Fick DH and use Huff more at first.

BENCH

SPRING FLING: More than any other area, the Rays improved their bench. They have an experienced veteran backup catcher in Fordyce, and some extremely versatile players in Fick (who can catch, play the corner outfield spots and first), Eduardo Perez (who can play first, third and the corner outfield), Rolls (who can play anywhere in the infield or outfield), and Deivi Cruz (who can play second, short and third). They may be able to keep only three of those position players, however, and the makeup of the starting lineup, such as where Lugo and Sanchez end up, and whether Blum establishes himself as an everyday third baseman, will be a factor. It could come down to keeping Cruz or Rolls.

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


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