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Devil Rays look for ways to solve tough division

Moving and large payrolls might go a long way toward helping Tampa Bay become more competitive in the league.

MARC TOPKIN
Published June 6, 2004

BALTIMORE - If the Devil Rays are going to compete for a division championship any time soon, one of two things probably will have to happen.

They either will have to spend more money to compete against the large-market, huge-payroll AL East teams in their division or they will have to be moved to another division.

"It's hard for us," manager Lou Piniella said before Saturday's game was postponed. "I don't complain about these things because we've got to play these teams, but we need to get to the point where we can compete in this division. And by "compete,' I'm not talking about giving teams a good game, I'm talking about winning.

"Obviously it would be a little more advantageous (to move to another division), but how about if we moved to the Central and five years from now the Central is the division that's really tough. You don't know. What you have to do is get to the point where you're good enough to compete in any division you're in. That's really what you need to do."

The most obvious way to do that is to raise the payroll.

The Rays have had the smallest payrolls in the majors in each of Piniella's two seasons (in the low $20-million range) and, even with the addition of new general partner Stuart Sternberg, aren't expected to make major increases in the near future.

The Rays tried being big spenders in 2000, increasing the payroll to more than $60-million for the infamous Hit Show squad, and it was a huge mistake they paid for for years.

Piniella would like to see them learn from their mistakes and try again.

"Let me ask you this. If you bought a car for the first time in your life and it turned out to be a lemon, do you walk for the rest of your life?" he said. "You buy a car that turns out to be a clunker, do you walk or ride a bicycle? You buy a new car. You study a little more, you find out what you did wrong, but you do buy a new car.

"Just because it hasn't worked once doesn't mean it's not going to work a second or third time. That's all I'm saying.

The other way to get closer to the top might be to move to a better neighborhood, especially with an unbalanced schedule that forces them to play 19 games against each division opponent.

Realignment hasn't been talked about much, but could be a hot topic once a decision is made this summer on the relocation of the Expos.

Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire, whose team competes in the more reasonable AL Central, said last week the Rays would do better somewhere else.

"People keep talking about the bottom of the barrel when talking about Tampa," Gardenhire said. "Look at the teams they've played. They're going to have a (losing) record against the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Blue Jays in that division. That's why their record is what it is. ...

"They aren't that bad if they get some pitching. They can hit. They can score runs. They are just in the wrong division."

Tino Martinez agrees.

"We can't worry about that or go off on that, but our job is a lot tougher than the Minnesota Twins' job or the Chicago White Sox's job," Martinez said. "Our task is a lot tougher.

"Hopefully it makes us a better team, and I think it has. ... It makes you a little tougher mentally. You always think what would happen if we were in another division, but that's not the case so we have to make the most of where we are."

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