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Suddenly, another starter leaves
Danny Bautista stuns the Rays by retiring, leaving a gap in rightfield just before the season.
By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 20, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - Roberto Alomar's retirement was not surprising or even particularly troublesome to the Devil Rays. But when starting rightfielder Danny Bautista came in Saturday and said he too was quitting and going home, the Rays were left with stunned looks on their faces and, two weeks before opening day, with a huge hole in their already thin lineup.
"Everyone's kind of dumbfounded today," leftfielder Aubrey Huff said. "We just lost our cleanup hitter and we don't know what happened. It's kind of a weird situation. It's a zoo around here today."
The Rays signed Bautista, 32, for $1.9-million, expecting him to hit in the middle of their order and play every day, at least until Rocco Baldelli returns from a knee injury in July or August.
But Bautista, who wavered on signing during the winter, said a series of nagging injuries left him unable to play at his typical level. He decided he'd rather not play at all, though he was leaving the Rays in a tough spot at a bad time.
"It's hard," he said. "The guys have to understand I can't give my 100 percent the way I'm feeling."
The Rays may have a hard time replacing him.
They can take on some salary - having about $4-million to spend after saving the $2.5-million they would have paid Alomar and Bautista - and have some pitching to offer in trade such as Lance Carter, Trever Miller and Jorge Sosa, but are not shopping in a buyer's market. Plus, general manager Chuck LaMar already is looking for an extra left-handed hitter, another middle infielder and possibly a backup catcher.
"What are we going to do in rightfield?" Huff said. "I heard we were looking for a utility guy. A utility guy seems to be last thing we need, especially with the way Shane Halter is playing. Are we going to go for a released player? We've been there, done that. You can't expect it to be a big name. How can it be?"
LaMar discounted the in-house alternatives, which include big-league veterans Dee Brown, Tom Goodwin and Chris Singleton, as well as minor-league prospects Joey Gathright, Jonny Gomes and Delmon Young.
"They need to continue to develop and you're not going to see them being rushed to the major leagues," he said.
LaMar said they might consider Alex Sanchez, who finalized a minor-league deal Saturday (for about $500,000 with another $400,000 in incentives) after being released last week by the Tigers, who complained about his sloppy defense and low on-base percentage.
"Obviously he's going to get a look, now maybe in a more prominent role than when I signed him (Friday)," LaMar said. "His stock is going up and he hasn't played a game."
The most likely scenario is a trade, with top candidates including Baltimore's Jay Gibbons, Cincinnati's Wily Mo Pena, Pittsburgh's Rob Mackowiak, Washington's Terrmel Sledge, Oakland's Eric Byrnes and the Mets' Eric Valent. They also have interest in Washington first baseman Nick Johnson and Houston infielder Mike Lamb as potential DHs.
"We need an outfielder," LaMar said. "We're going to be on the lookout and hopefully make a move by the end of spring training."
The issue for the Rays will be deciding how much to give up to fill an unexpected opening.
"At this time usually in spring training is when some players become available and some teams' needs become a little more defined, so we'll see what happens," manager Lou Piniella said. "I'm sure Chuck will get on the phone and get busy and see what he can do."
While Bautista's outfield spot appears wide open, the Rays would seem to have second base covered, with Jorge Cantu poised to take the job Alomar had been slated for.
"If nothing changes he's going to be our second baseman," Piniella said. "I don't know specifically what the organization has in mind. But from what he did here last year and the way he's played here in the spring I feel comfortable with him."
But LaMar said there was still a chance the Rays could acquire a starting second baseman and Cantu could remain in a reserve infield role.
"We said all along Jorge Cantu would either be the second baseman or the utility guy on this club and I'm going to tell you the same thing today," he said.
Cantu said he wasn't taking anything for granted anyway. "I don't like to show off that way, that (Alomar's) leaving now and I'm good to go,' he said. "I don't like that."
The Rays also have to make several decisions on pitchers, with veteran Hideo Nomo making a late push for one of the two remaining spots in the rotation and a number of candidates pitching for the final slots in the bullpen.
Bautista's retirement was a shock to most of the Rays, but he apparently had been dropping hints over the past week, when he spent a lot of time being treated for a right foot injury. Several players suspected something was up when Bautista took most of his personal possessions from the clubhouse during Friday night's game.
"I heard he said something to the trainers but he didn't say anything to me," shortstop Julio Lugo said. "I think it's a loss for us and it's a loss for the game. He respects the game. He's a hard worker, and he can still play. It surprises me."
"Unbelievable," reliever Jesus Colome said.
Bautista, who hit .250 in seven spring games, said he hasn't been completely healthy for about four years and the combination of injuries wore him down. "The way I feel right now, all the injuries are all in one," he said.
He admitted that he considered retirement during the offseason and that when he signed with the Rays in January he told his agent he would re-evaluate about midway through spring training, though apparently didn't tell team officials that.
"I said I'd go to spring training and wait about three weeks and if I wasn't feeling better I'd decide to retire, and that's what I did," Bautista said. "I decided to go home and relax with my family and my kids, see my kids grow, take them to school, take them to the fields, help them out."