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Turmoil aside, Rays players find reasons to believe

Turmoil aside, Rays players find reasons to believe

By MARC TOPKIN
Published October 2, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - Manager Lou Piniella is leaving. General manager Chuck LaMar has started cleaning out his office in anticipation of being fired. Managing general partner Vince Naimoli is expected to cede control of the team to Stuart Sternberg within a week or so, launching a massive makeover of the organization.

There will be plenty of comings and goings. But it shouldn't be lost that the team - finally - appears to be getting somewhere, too.

Despite Saturday's 4-3 loss to the Orioles, the Devil Rays head into today's season finale with a winning record (39-33) since the All-Star break, a collection of young talent that has drawn raves throughout the game and a sense that after eight straight seasons of 90-plus losses and seven last-place finishes that better days truly may be ahead.

"We've got a chance," shortstop Julio Lugo said, "to be something."

After a 28-61 start that had them on pace for 111 losses, the Rays turned around their season with an impressive second half against a schedule littered with playoff contenders.

Credit has been given to a series of roster changes that improved team chemistry and mental toughness, the signing of Joe Borowski to stabilize the bullpen and an inspiring speech from Piniella before the first game after the All-Star break.

What mattered most was that it worked.

The true key was that several young players who Rays executives had been talking about for years joined the group that was in the majors and together they improved enough to prove they could play winning baseball.

"What they've been waiting for is here now," rookie outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "We've got a great core and a great amount of talent. If we just run the team out that we ran out in the second half every day I think good things can happen."

Gomes and pitcher Scott Kazmir are two of the top rookies in the league. Second baseman Jorge Cantu's record-smashing season ranks as one of the best all time for a player under 24. Carl Crawford continues to get improve. Chad Orvella established himself as a dependable reliever. Young starters Seth McClung and Doug Waechter showed flashes of brilliance.

And there is more top-tier talent coming, with two of the game's elite minor-league prospects, B.J. Upton and Delmon Young, expected to reach the majors sometime next season, along with pitcher Jason Hammel. Plus, Rocco Baldelli should be back in the lineup after missing the 2005 season with injuries.

"I don't think the organization has ever been stronger on the field," LaMar said. "It's obvious to everybody. I've been saying it for years and years and finally you can actually see it instead of listening to my rhetoric."

The players see it the same way, though they hope that whoever is making the decisions will increase the major-league-low payroll enough to add a few much-needed veterans so they can become legitimate contenders.

"I'm telling you, we're like a few pieces away," Crawford said. "That's the talk around the clubhouse. We know we've got a good team and we know that we're just a couple pieces away. As bad as it's been for them not spending money and as low as the budget went, you get one or two little key pieces and we're right there. That's just how simple it can be."

"This team has what it takes to have a winning record," Cantu said. "We're going to let other teams know things are going to be different. I think everyone's goal here is to be recognized as a team to beat, and I think we're doing it."

In a way, the significant changes in the organization leadership couldn't happen soon enough given the long history of losing and laughable moves. But in another way, it couldn't come at a more delicate time given the progress that finally has been made on the field.

There is some concern that change might not do them good.

"I'm not really sure how that's going to effect everybody," Crawford said. "Hopefully they'll understand what we have here and just try to work from there."

"Hopefully it doesn't hurt the team because we really have something going on here," Cantu said.

The expected new management will have several key decisions to make, such as whether to exercise options on Lugo ($4.9-million) and All-Star closer Danys Baez ($4-million), whether to trade Aubrey Huff (whose salary jumps to $6.75-million) and others for pitching, and when to bring up Young and Upton.

"We've got a good core of young players, but the question is will it be here next year," Huff said. "That's always been a question every year here."

Even Piniella, who is leaving in part because he didn't want to wait for the team to become competitive, recognizes the Rays are heading in the right direction.

"The success the team has had here in the second half, it's something this organization can draw from," he said. "There's some pieces here, there's no question. There's some good pieces. And they're getting used to winning, which is probably the most important ingredient of all."