tampabay.com

As Upton waits, trading Lugo makes sense

By MARC TOPKIN
Published June 25, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - Within the next five weeks, the Devil Rays must make two decisions that could have a major impact on the team's short- and long-term future.

One is whether to trade shortstop Julio Lugo. The other is whether to promote shortstop B.J. Upton from Triple A.

They would seem to be obviously related. The Rays view them as mutually exclusive. Either way, both must be decided.

The most logical course would be to trade Lugo, promote Upton and use the remaining two months to determine, once and forever, whether he can play shortstop in the big leagues.

Despite 26 errors in 72 games at Durham this season (and 168 in 439 minor-league games overall), Upton, 21, has shown signs of improvement. Plus, some - though not all - of his errors are on plays other less-talented shortstops couldn't make.

His offense (a mix of speed and power) is much more valuable as a shortstop, so it behooves the Rays to explore every option. Before they decide to move him to centerfield (which doesn't necessarily make it easier to get him to the majors) or third base, they first may want to give him the chance to play every day in the big leagues.

For all the reasons that it is more difficult to do so (the game is faster, the scrutiny more intense, the pressure greater) there is also a line of thinking that talented young players can get frustrated and/or complacent in the minors (this is Upton's third season at Durham) and actually relax once they get to the majors.

"My goal is still to get to the big leagues as a shortstop," Upton said.

"That's the way I look at it."

But to bring him up without first trading Lugo could backfire. Upton needs to know he will be in the lineup every day. And unless the Rays suddenly turn into contenders, this is the proper time to experiment.

Plus, it wouldn't be fair to Lugo, who is headed toward big-bucks free agency, to be reduced to part-time duty. The Blue Jays, Red Sox, White Sox and A's (pending the health of Bobby Crosby) have interest in Lugo, as do the Mets, though as a second baseman. Lugo, who makes $4.95-million this season, has given up trying to figure out what will happen.

"The only thing I'm worried about is playing good for Tampa Bay," Lugo said.

"Whatever they're going to do with the team, do it. Whatever they're going to do with me, do it. I just come to play."

The chances of the Rays re-signing Lugo, who could be looking for $32-million to $40-million over four years, are slim. Getting two draft choices as compensation if he leaves as a free agent sounds like a better deal than it is.

The best thing for all parties? Get the most they can for Lugo by the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline (maybe a young pitcher or two?), give Upton a chance to show what he can and can't do, and - finally - move forward.

RAYS RUMBLINGS:

Official word is coming, but well-deserved two-year contract extensions for radio broadcasters Andy Freed and Dave Wills are in the works. ... If, as expected, oft-suspended Josh Hamilton gets clearance to play in the minors, he could be on the field with SW Michigan or Hudson Valley within a week for what would be his first game since July 2002. ... The latest Aubrey Huff trade rumors involve Detroit; interest in starter Mark Hendrickson is building, with the Yankees among the possibilities. ... Rays officials say rumors out of Puerto Rico that they'd move a 2007 series or two to San Juan are news to them; MLB says it's not on the schedule - as of now. ... Minor-league reliever Juan Salas, who hasn't allowed an earned run in an amazing 41 innings, has a 94-95 mph fastball that Triple-A pitching coach Joe Coleman called "a natural cutter. It's almost a (Yankees closer Mariano) Rivera-type fastball." ... Top draft pick Evan Longoria was a second-team All-America pick by Baseball America. ... Royals GM Dayton Moore called speedy Joey Gathright "a developing offensive player" whose offense "will play up in this ballpark because of the vastness of the alleys." Of course, Gathright first has to hit the ball into the alleys.