SAN DIEGO - The Devil Rays say their group of rising young players is the key to their future success, and they want to do what they can to keep that core intact.
The Rays recently opened preliminary talks with Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford about long-term contracts and have talked about extending the three-year deal they just gave Aubrey Huff .
"It is our desire to show the fans of Tampa Bay that we are sincere when we say we're going to bring a championship club to the Tampa Bay area, and we think we have the nucleus of young players to do that," general manager Chuck LaMar said Thursday.
"We have to keep them. That is our intent. ... Obviously Aubrey, Rocco and Carl are three of the players that we would like to keep in this organization for a long time, and there will be others."
Baldelli and Crawford won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2008 season, so the Rays may be considering offers of at least five years. With shorter-term deals, they could gain cost certainty by eliminating the arbitration process.
Huff would be a free agent after the 2006 season when the three-year, $14.5-million deal he signed in the offseason expires. Adding years to that would keep him from free agency.
"Our goal is whatever way we can to try to keep this group together," LaMar said. "We've said all along we were building this organization through scouting and player development and now that it looks like we've done that, our job is to keep them and win with them.
"We may not be able to keep all of them. Some of these players may not want to enter into a long-term agreement. But we want it to be their choice. We want to present fair offers and try to get things done."
Thursday, LaMar, managing general partner Vince Naimoli and director of strategic planning Matt Silverman met with Jeff Moorad, who represents Crawford, and Scott Boras, who represents Baldelli.
Boras said that the meeting was general in nature and went well, and that the impact of new general partner Stuart Sternberg seemed obvious. "They have probably a new disposition with the influx of new ownership," Boras said.
The Rays have also had preliminary talks with shortstop Julio Lugo and may open talks with top minor-leaguers such as Upton and Joey Gathright.
BIG UNIT: The Rays have a big challenge waiting for them tonight in Arizona: 6-foot-10 Randy Johnson.
The hard-throwing left-hander can be the most dominating pitcher in either league and is by far the pitcher most hitters hate to face.
"He's tough," Lugo said. "He's intimidating when he's on the mound. He looks like he's 12 feet tall out there.
Lou Piniella managed Johnson for 51/2 seasons in Seattle when he won the first of his five Cy Young Awards and was on the verge of becoming the pitcher he is now.
"He was getting close," Piniella said.
Because Johnson is so tough on left-handed hitters (allowing seven hits in 57 at-bats), Piniella plans to keep most of his - including Tino Martinez and Fred McGriff - on the bench tonight. The only lefties likely to start are Crawford and Huff, and Piniella was even considering playing backup catcher Brook Fordyce at first but is more likely to use Huff there and switch-hitting Geoff Blum at third.
GOOD SIGN: The Rays' 9-6 win on Wednesday was the product of some timely hitting, but starter Victor Zambrano's six-inning effort should not be overlooked.
"He didn't have his best stuff, and what I was most proud of was the way he kept us in the game," Fordyce said.
MISCELLANY: Injured reserve Damian Rolls will start taking batting practice this weekend and is expected to join Triple-A Durham on Thursday for a rehab assignment. ... Pitcher Doug Waechter, sidelined with a strained tendon in his right middle finger, is playing catch with minimal discomfort and could throw off a mound this weekend. ... Jesus Colome's first pro at-bat was a success, a sacrifice bunt in the eighth inning. ... The Rays are 6-1-1 in their past eight series. ... Arizona's Bank One Ballpark will be the 26th stadium they have played in; they are 5-20 in debuts.