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New bosses vow to make things happen for Rays

Locking up key players, signing others a step in the right direction.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 11, 2005

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. - They committed $32-million Thursday to get Rocco Baldelli under a long-term contract like Carl Crawford. They reached out this week to smooth things over with rising prospects B.J. Upton and Delmon Young.

Now the Devil Rays have to get to work on getting better.

Baseball's free-agent signing period starts today, and the Rays plan to be active - or at least more active than years past, when they typically waited until December or January and ended up shopping on the bottom shelf.

It's not like they're suddenly going to join the bidding for prized catches such as A.J. Burnett or Paul Konerko. And they may well still end up with the less-than-marquee attractions.

But at least they say they are going to try, the new front office team promising a more aggressive and creative approach that should, if nothing else, make the winter more interesting.

"We'll certainly monitor the market on all guys no matter if they are big or small names," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said Thursday at the annual general manager meetings. "We don't want to read in the paper that someone else did something we could have done."

With what may be only a meager payroll increase to $33-million or $34-million, the Rays won't have much to spend on adding pitching (starters and relievers) and filling potential holes at first and third base.

Solid veterans such as Bill Mueller and Jose Valentin are among the possibilities at third base; Erubiel Durazo, Tino Martinez and incumbent Travis Lee are options for a left-handed hitter at first; Brett Tomko and Octavio Dotel (coming back from injury) could be potential additions to the pitching staff.

Realistically, the Rays may end up being more active in the trade market, both in following up on initial talks they had here about shipping out some players, such as Danys Baez, Joey Gathright, and Aubrey Huff, as well as bringing in some help, such as Florida third baseman Mike Lowell or a few of the Mets' young arms.

Actually, the free-agent and trade markets may end up being related. For example, with few middle-of-the-lineup hitters beyond Konerko and Brian Giles among the free agents, Huff's trade value may increase. Similarly, once top free-agent closers B.J. Ryan and Billy Wagner sign, demand for Baez may go up. Or, if free-agent prices quickly get out of control, teams may find Baez (at $4-million) and Huff (at $6.75-million) suddenly more attractive. And if the Rays trade one or both, or arbitration-eligible catcher Toby Hall, they could have a lot more to spend on free agents.

"How the free-agent market unfolds may have a lot of bearing on the trade market," Friedman said. "And vice versa."

The Rays also have some internal decisions to make. Young and Upton most likely will start the season at Triple A, but the Rays have to consider how quickly they will be ready and whether that impacts what additions they make. They also are talking about whether it would be better to try Upton at third in the big leagues or have him continue working at shortstop in the minors.

Overall, the free-agent market is considered one of the thinnest in years, and executives with several teams said they expect it to unfold slowly.

"I think there will be a few early signings, but most agents are going to want to let the market mature," new Phillies GM Pat Gillick said.

[Last modified November 11, 2005, 01:19:18]

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