10 things worth watching

Published April 3, 2005

The Devil Rays are probably not going to win the pennant this season. They are probably not going to finish ahead of the Yankees and the Red Sox in the AL East. They are probably not going to the playoffs. But that doesn't mean there is no reason to watch. With a core of talented young players and a few crafty veterans, the Rays have shown steady improvement under manager Lou Piniella the last two seasons, going from 55 wins to 63 to 70. They hope to make a similar gain this season, perhaps approaching their first .500 record, and building toward a future they insist is bright. Along the way, there should be some interesting acts to follow: the continued progress of rising stars Carl Crawford and Aubrey Huff; the development of young starters such as Scott Kazmir and Jorge Cantu; the skills of veterans Danys Baez, Alex Gonzalez and Travis Lee; the coaching abilities of Piniella and pitching coach Chuck Hernandez; or even the way Rocco Baldelli recovers from the left knee injury expected to keep him out until after the All-Star break.


Standing still, Crawford makes people uncomfortable. Put him in motion, and things really start to happen. He can change a defense. Disrupt a game. And ruin someone's night. Crawford's blazing speed isn't usually seen on the baseball field, and it's obvious beyond his two straight American League stolen base titles how much difference it can make. Routine grounders become close plays, and occasionally infield hits. Doubles down the line automatically expand into triples. Pitchouts are rendered useless. Defensively, line drives in the gaps turn into routine outs. "His speed is incredible," Boston manager Terry Francona said. "He flies. And he flies every time." Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said Crawford puts pressure on a defense as soon as he steps to the plate. "You know you have no room for error," Jeter said. And when Crawford does get to first base? "To me, it's amazing," said Tino Martinez, the former Rays and current Yankees first baseman. "Everyone knows he's going (on the) first or second pitch, pitchout, it doesn't matter. He's going, and they still can't catch him." Plus, Rays first-base coach Billy Hatcher said, "He's not afraid to get caught. He has no fear." Crawford does everything fast. He won't turn 24 until August, and he has already established himself as one of the game's most dynamic players. He has led the AL the past two seasons with 55 and 59 steals, giving him 44 more over that span than anyone else in the league, and is still learning. He led the majors last season with 19 triples, a total only five players have surpassed in the past 55 years. He is one of 11 players in AL history to have 50 steals, 50 extra-base hits and 100 runs scored in the same season. He was an All-Star for the first time last season and received consideration for a Gold Glove. "Early on there was a lot of tools and raw ability," Boston's Kevin Millar said. "Now he's putting all that together. This guy is definitely becoming a force at this level."


Emerging as one of the game's top hitters, Huff has posted some impressive numbers. And he has put himself into some exclusive company. Since joining the Rays full time in May 2002, Huff has gotten more hits (518) than all but six major-leaguers. And over the past two seasons, he is one of only six to average 30 homers and 100 RBIs while hitting better than .300, joining some of the game's biggest stars: Vladimir Guerrero, Todd Helton, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield. Huff, 28, has what is considered a natural swing: a smooth, fluid stroke that looks effortless but allows him to maximize his power at the point of impact. "He's one of the few guys in the league who just explodes on the ball at contact," former teammate Tino Martinez said. "He explodes. I've never seen a guy who can wait that long and when the ball gets there, just explode it." Rays hitting coach Lee Elia says Huff's keys are good weight shift, great torque and a very powerful top hand. First-base coach Billy Hatcher notes how the head of Huff's bat is always in the hitting zone. Teammates and opponents marvel at how consistent and productive Huff has been. "He's definitely one of the most dominating left-handed hitters in the league," Boston's Kevin Millar said. "If you know this game, you know about Aubrey Huff. He plays in a smaller market than most of us, but there's not a team out there that wouldn't want him in the middle of their lineup."


When things go just right for Baez, when he sets a batter up, and his two-seamer rides in hard and does the job, he borrows a line from Tony Montana in the cult classic movie Scarface: "Say hello to my little friend." Except for when the pitch results in a crucial double play or a particularly key out. "Sometimes," Baez said, "it's my big friend." The two-seamer isn't Baez's fastest pitch, usually clocking 93-94 mph, a couple miles shy of his four-seam fastball. And it's not his trickiest pitch, not when he mixes in some split-fingers that look as if they dropped off a table. But the two-seamer is his out pitch, the one he throws when he absolutely, positively has to escape a jam. "It's explosive," catcher Toby Hall said. "It's like a Mariano Rivera-type cutter." Picture a fastball that can start over the plate, then break hard in and down on a right-handed batter's hands, or sharply away from a left-hander, rendering his bat almost useless, often capable only of a weak grounder that starts a double play. "One pitch, two outs," Baez said. "That pitch has saved my butt many times."


Kazmir wasn't always a hard-throwing, highly touted pitching prospect. Growing up in the Houston area, he was a struggling T-baller who considered quitting the sport, and a Little Leaguer stuck in the outfield until a coach noticed he had a strong arm. "My coach taught me how to do a windup and told me to practice in front of a mirror for a week," Kazmir said. "I got it down, and he started me pitching." Ten years later, Kazmir, 21, is considered one of the best young pitchers in the major leagues. And he doesn't do it quietly, firing fastballs that roar across the plate consistently in the 94-96 mph range. "He's got great stuff," Boston manager Terry Francona said. "He was probably the most impressive young pitcher I saw last year, and I don't think I'm exaggerating." Kazmir's pitches are dazzling enough. What makes them more stunning is that they come from someone who looks as small (barely touching the 6 feet and 170 pounds listed on the roster) and as young as he does. "It's very sneaky," catcher Toby Hall said. "He's like 5-5, 140, and it just explodes out of his little compact body."


Piniella's record 1,452-1,325 over 18 seasons, five postseason appearances and the 1990 World Series championship with Cincinnati shows how successful a manager he is. But it's the little things he does, like the way he sets up his lineup, maneuvers to arrange favorable matchups and gets the most out of his bullpen, that set him apart. "People in baseball talk about how many wins does a major-league manager truly make a difference in over the course of 162 games, and most baseball people think it's a relatively low number," Rays GM Chuck LaMar said. "But I do not believe that in Lou's case. . . . He's as good a game strategist as there is. People think of the fiery competitor, the motivator, the winner, the leader, and all those things are true. But one thing that is truly outstanding is how he mixes and matches when he has the pieces in the bullpen and on the bench. He does a fabulous job." Piniella's success is the combination of tremendous knowledge of the game and excellent instincts. "Lou's basically a risk taker who relies on his instincts for when to take the risk," former Mariners GM Pat Gillick said. "He kind of patterns himself after Billy Martin. Between the lines, Lou is one of the best game managers there is."


Cantu is not a particularly big man, about 6-feet-1 and less than 200 pounds. But he has solid arms, strong hands and the ability to hit the ball very hard. The results last year were impressive. His 53 doubles between the majors and the minors were the second-most of any player in pro ball. And only one player in history had more than his 20 doubles in fewer than his 173 big-league at-bats, Earle Brucker of the 1938 Philadelphia A's. How does he do it? "His greatest strengths are his hands and his ability to use the whole ballpark," Rays hitting coach Lee Elia said. "His hands are short and quick to the ball. He's hitting the ball a little harder this spring; I think the added strength from playing in Mexico this winter has helped him." Cantu is young (23), inexperienced and aggressive, so he's not necessarily consistent. And the Rays are wary of asking him to do too much, accepting that he has "doubles power" and not trying to turn him into a home-run hitter. "He just hits the ball hard," first-base coach Billy Hatcher said. "It gets into the gap quick, it gets down the line quick. He doesn't try to do too much. He hits the ball where it's pitched, and he hits it hard."


For the past 10 years, Gonzalez has been one of the best fielding shortstops in the game. Moving 40 feet to the right to play third base shouldn't change anything. His glove and hands seem to be just as soft, his feet quick and his athleticism regularly on display, resulting in a number of spectacular diving plays throughout the exhibition season. "It's reaction, and he's got it," Rays infield coach Tom Foley said. Gonzalez has been pleased so far but cautions that he isn't completely comfortable, knowing there are positioning secrets he has yet to learn and some unusual plays and angles he hasn't experienced. "It's mostly reaction down there, and he's got real soft hands," Foley said. Among active players, Gonzalez ranks fourth among shortstops with a .975 fielding percentage. And the way he has played this spring diving, jumping and leaping for balls his teammates have no reason to think he won't do as well at third. "He looks good," shortstop Julio Lugo said. "He looks like he's been playing there all the time."


With a staff that will be among the youngest and least experienced in the game, opposing lineups loaded with All-Star sluggers and a boss known to be, oh, a wee bit demanding, Hernandez's job as pitching coach is among the most difficult assignments on the team. Teaching, coaching, advising, listening; Hernandez will have to do a little bit of everything. Unlike a coach with veteran pitchers who have their own programs and know their own arms, Hernandez has to be concerned with how his young pitchers throw, how they feel, what they're thinking, if they're getting enough rest, what they're doing on (and off) the mound, etc. "You have to continue to teach because they're learning," Hernandez said. "I think you have to be patient when you need to be. And you're nurturing by having a good feel for their arms, how they're physically holding up as well as how they're holding up emotionally." General manager Chuck LaMar said Hernandez, 44, has one of the most unique jobs in the game, trying to develop a young staff through the inevitable rough times and satisfy a manager who wants to win every night. "He's got to win with the pitchers that he has, and a lot of them are just starting what could be outstanding careers," LaMar said. "So it's a fine line between winning right now and continue developing the young pitchers mentally and physically, and he's capable of doing both."


Lee's hands aren't particularly big or especially soft, and he uses no special potions or exotic training rituals. But he does have a secret, which could be a big reason for his success as one of the slickest-fielding first basemen in the game. Lee is ambidextrous, which makes him equally adept with either hand. He does almost everything with his right hand he eats, he writes, he even played quarterback that way but when his dad gave him the choice, he decided to play baseball left-handed. So while he hits left-handed and throws left-handed, he fields the ball with his right hand, which just might be why he can so deftly scoop grounders and pick throws out of the dirt. "My right hand is so dominant, and I wear the glove on that hand," Lee said. "I just didn't like the way it felt on my left hand. I'm weird." He's pretty good, too. Lee has the best career fielding percentage (.997) of all first basemen in history, and a reputation to match. "The best I've ever seen," Rays shortstop Julio Lugo said. Rays infield coach Tom Foley said Lee's smooth play is the result of good hands and smart decisions. "He's got real soft hands, and he sets up hops," Foley said. "He sees the balls and he knows what he is going to get. He knows whether to go get it, or give a little. And it's the same thing on ground balls. He reads everything really good. It's an infielder's dream to have a guy like that over there."


One of the biggest issues for the Rays this season will be the strength of the small ligament inside Baldelli's left knee. Because until Baldelli is confident his knee is completely strong after ACL surgery, and proves it to himself, the Rays won't have their best team on the field. Until then? Baldelli spends 3-4 hours a day rehabilitating and no time feeling sorry for himself, even though the injury occurred in the most innocent fashion, playing in the back yard with his 6-year-old brother. "I know what I have to do and I do it, and that's the end of it," Baldelli said. "It's not agonizing. I want to play, but we all know it's not happening." There is no exact timetable for Baldelli's return. His best guess is that if all goes well, he'll start a 20-day minor-league rehab assignment in July, putting him back in the Rays lineup at the end of that month or early to mid August. With a long career ahead of him, the last thing Baldelli, 23, wants to do is rush back before his knee is 100 percent and get hurt again. How will he know? "It's probably when I can do everything 100 percent and do it with minimal soreness. When I think I can get on the field and play at a level where I'm not going to be disappointed. And what the trainers tell me," Baldelli said. "When I feel I can go on the field and be confident I'm not going to hurt myself is when I'll be back out there. I'm not going to go out and play a big-league ballgame not knowing if my knee is going to hold up."