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Busy Rays boost D, bullpen, budget
Jose Cruz heads to Arizona for left-hander Casey Fossum, and Travis Lee returns to take over at first.
By MARC TOPKIN
Published February 7, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - The Devil Rays traded inconsistent outfielder Jose Cruz and his $4-million salary to Arizona on Sunday.
In doing so, they ended up with a new first baseman, slick-fielding Travis Lee; a new left-handed pitcher, starter/reliever Casey Fossum; a much better infield defense (though a weaker outfield alignment); and enough money to possibly add a starting pitcher.
"I think we strengthened our ballclub today," general manager Chuck LaMar said.
The deals, which had been in the works on parallel tracks for about a week, will lead to a number of changes as the Rays prepare to open spring training Feb.18.
Lee, who missed most of last season after left shoulder surgery, takes over at first base, where he is one of the game's top defensive players.
Aubrey Huff, who was to be shifted from third base to first, instead will move to the outfield, most likely starting in left, at least until Rocco Baldelli returns from a knee injury in midseason.
Danny Bautista, who was signed to play left, would then end up in rightfield.
And Fossum, who struggled to a 4-15 record and 6.65 ERA in his first season back from shoulder surgery, will assume a middle- to long-relief role but hopes to challenge for a starting job.
"Knowing we could sign Travis and pick up another arm in the bullpen made it attractive to us," manager Lou Piniella said.
Offensively, the changes shouldn't make much difference. Lee hit .275 with 19 homers and 70 RBIs for the Rays in 2003; Cruz hit .242 with 21 homers and 78 RBIs last season. Though Cruz was a switch-hitter, Piniella liked the idea of adding a proven left-handed bat, projecting Huff, Bautista and Lee to comprise the middle of the order.
Defensively, Lee will have a big impact, especially as shortstop Julio Lugo has an occasionally erratic arm and Alex Gonzalez will be moving from shortstop to third.
"We just needed to strengthen our infield, and Travis makes any infield better," LaMar said. "He's one of the outstanding defensive first basemen in the game, and we think he'll provide some offense from the left side as he did two years ago."
Though Huff doesn't have the range or arm of Cruz, who won a Gold Glove in 2003, he showed the Rays during the 2003 season that he can do a solid job in the outfield. He played mostly third base last season.
"If I had to tell you where I think Aubrey Huff fits our club defensively and where I think he's going to hit the best, it would be a corner outfield spot," LaMar said.
Pitching-wise, Fossum, 27, gives the Rays both experience and potential, featuring a good fastball and an excellent curve.
Financially, the Rays come out way ahead, essentially swapping Cruz for Lee and Fossum and still having more than $1.5-million left to add a starting pitcher.
They saved $4-million on Cruz, even after sending the Diamondbacks $500,000 to cover his incentives. They got back Lee, who played for them in 2003, for a relative bargain: $1.3-million, plus $200,000 in incentives. They settled an inherited arbitration case with Fossum later Sunday for $950,000 (plus a 2006 mutual option for around $1.25-million).
That leaves them enough money to add nonroster invitee Hideo Nomo to the staff, or pick up another veteran starter during the spring, or maybe both.
To make room for Lee on the 40-man roster, they designated for assignment outfielder Matt Diaz, giving them 10 days to trade, release or pass him through waivers.
Fossum was a key piece of the trade that send Curt Schilling from Arizona to Boston after showing promise during parts of three seasons with the Red Sox. He missed the first six weeks of the 2004 season after shoulder surgery, and both he and the Rays expect better things this season.
"Last year, the first third of the season, I felt like I was in spring training. I was building up arm strength," Fossum said. "But the last nine starts (2-3, 4.91) I felt like I was back to where I was."
"We're rolling the dice a little bit, but when a guy has surgery historically he's better the second year," LaMar said. "We think he'll be a better major-league pitcher this coming year than he was last year."
Lee, 29, signed with the Rays just before spring training in 2003 and had a solid year but became a free agent when both sides declined a mutual option. He joined the Yankees last season but hurt his shoulder in spring training and played only seven games. LaMar said the Rays reviewed medical records and expect Lee to be 100 percent by opening day.
"I'm glad the Rays came calling," Lee said. "It's a comfortable situation."