tampabay.com

GM: Window of opportunity' nears

By MARC TOPKIN
Published April 3, 2005


As general manager, Chuck LaMar has been in charge of all Devil Rays baseball operations for nearly 10 years. The Rays have compiled a 451-680 mark during that time and didn't win as many as 70 games or finish out of last place until last season. But LaMar is confident better days are ahead. LaMar talked recently with Times baseball writer Marc Topkin about progress, development and the upcoming season.

Does it feel like it's the eighth major-league season for the Rays?

Honestly, this time of year, no it doesn't. We're getting close to opening day opening day of a major-league season. As I've told you many times, I think opening day is not only special for all of us in the game of baseball, but it's a time to be thankful that we make a living doing what we truly like to do. So it's spring eternal, if you would. It's just a great time of year to get started on a championship season. All I can think about at this point is the 2005 campaign and making this club better, not only this year but for the future. Ask me that question in July and it may feel like the 10th year, but right now we're anxious to get things started.

What stage of development is the team in right now?

I don't know what scale you want to use, but zero to 10, we've got to be getting into that seven range, somewhere there. Because truly, this organization has a window of opportunity over the next year or two where our young players that we worked so hard and spent so much time developing are here, and the payroll will have to increase. And if those two things happen, if the young players continue to improve and develop like we think they will, and the payroll increases, we will not only put a competitive club in Tropicana Field, we'll put a winning baseball team (on the field).

What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of this year's team?

About what we thought going into the year. The strength of the team is in the bullpen. We're going to be able to catch the ball, especially when Rocco (Baldelli, who had knee surgery) comes back. We have some athleticism that will enable Lou (Piniella) to take advantage of certain situations. We do not have the offensive capability to get to where we want to go, so we're going to have to do the little things. We're going to have to have a good bullpen to win games that we have a chance to win. We're going to have to get good defense throughout the lineup. We're going to have to take advantage of our athleticism and play "small ball" because we're just not going to beat people with our power. I think we know what we are offensively, and we need to get better.

So what, then, is the key to the season?

The true question is, how many innings do we get out of our young starting pitching? If we get innings against good teams I think we'll pitch very well against a lot of teams in baseball but the good teams, the teams that we eventually have to beat over the next year or two, it's critical that we get into that fifth, sixth, seventh inning, competitively, in the ballgame. So I think the innings out of our starters is something that we just have to get. It's going to be interesting to see how we do.

What, in your opinion, will make this a successful season?

Very simply, to continue the improvement in wins, and continue the development of our young players. Since Lou has been here we have improved wins every year (from 55 to 63 to 70), and we're going to do everything we can to do that again this year. And we'll continue to develop our young players. It's not out of the realm of possibility that by Sept. 1 this year not only is Rocco Baldelli back, but Delmon Young, B.J. Upton and Jeff Niemann are all in the major leagues. And now the fans of Tampa Bay will truly see the makings of a championship club.

Despite all the talk about past failures, do you truly feel there is reason for optimism?

If this organization capitalizes on the window of opportunity you have to in this game. It's great to continually be "long term," but eventually you have to take advantage of the players that you sign and if not, you won't be able to keep those players. If over the next several years we take advantage of this window of opportunity, we'll draw more fans to Tropicana and in turn increase our payroll and be able to keep the nucleus of young players. But if we don't capitalize over the next two or three years, then we won't have the wherewithal to hold on to these young players and will continually be turning players over and never finish the building. You're rebuilding something that will have never been completely finished. In this game you cannot get caught doing that. I truly believe over the next several years, before our young players become free agents, that with the addition of the next wave of young players and additional payroll, people will forget not only my mistakes but how long it has taken this organization to get to where we wanted to get to.#