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Changes needed, hands tied

MARC TOPKIN
Published May 23, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Manager Lou Piniella says if the Devil Rays keep losing, they will have to try some different players.

General manager Chuck LaMar says if the Rays keep losing, they will consider all possibilities to make the team better.

They are both saying the right thing, but the reality is they don't have many choices.

Most of the young major-league-caliber position players the Rays have, which means Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford and Jonny Gomes, are already in the major leagues.

Two more are likely to be called up in the coming months (weeks?): B.J. Upton, the 19-year-old shortstop rated the top prospect in the minors; and Joey Gathright, the speedy outfielder considered a future leadoff man.

But that's about it.

Otherwise, most of the players in the minor-league system are too far away to help, such as Class A stars Delmon Young, Wes Bankston and Shawn Riggans; have been struggling in the minors, such as Pete LaForest, who is hitting .186 at Triple A; or have already had a chance in the majors, such as Jared Sandberg or Matt Diaz.

Sure, the Rays could call up versatile Charles Gipson to fill in (especially if they let Rey Sanchez go), or give infielder Jorge Cantu (.268, nine homers, 27 RBIs at Triple A) a chance.

But they are not impact players who can make a difference. Why do you think they are planning to bring in 40-year-old Fred McGriff?

The other option is to trade struggling veterans for fresh faces. But it's hard to get much for them for the very reason the Rays would be trading them: They aren't playing well.

LaMar said the team's goal, as seems to be the case every summer, "will be to eventually get younger."

Veterans Sanchez, Geoff Blum, Jose Cruz, Robert Fick and Julio Lugo would seem to be candidates for a trade, and possibly others. "I would consider anything at this point," LaMar said.

It's not like he has a lot of options.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: Barry Bonds' sore back has to be a pain for Rays marketing officials; if he goes on the disabled list this week he may miss the June 8-10 series at the Trop. ... Bob Basham, one of the partners who sold out to Stuart Sternberg, was sitting behind the Rays dugout Tuesday and looking mighty happy. ... ESPN's Peter Gammons says the Rays made a mistake in bringing up Crawford and Baldelli too early because "when their next group of young players are ready, those two will be too expensive and on their way out." ... The Orlando Sentinel's David Whitley writes: "Piniella is becoming just another unwitting guest at baseball's Bates Motel. And this season is turning into one long shower scene."

DRAFT DAZE: A draft loaded with top-notch college pitching would seem to be just what the Rays need. But with two weeks to go, they may be leaning toward, of all things, a high school shortstop, Chris Nelson of Decatur, Ga.

Nelson, who is coming off Tommy John elbow surgery, is a 5-foot-11, 165-pounder with excellent tools, a plus arm and potential to be a big offensive player, though with average power. Baseball America ranks him the top prep position player and projects him as the Rays' pick at No. 4. With Upton set to be the future shortstop, Nelson presumably would move to second or third.

The Rays could still take a college pitcher if overwhelmed; otherwise, they'll wait for later rounds. Top choices are Long Beach State's Jered Weaver (the likely top pick by San Diego), Old Dominion's Justin Verlander (likely No. 2 by Detroit) and the Rice trio of Jeff Niemann, Philip Humber and Wade Townsend. Other possible top picks are FSU shortstop Stephen Drew and Texas prep pitcher Homer Bailey.

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