tampabay.com

No one's future is secure

Jorge Cantu is one of several Rays whose past performance doesn't guarantee a roster slot today.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 25, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Jorge Cantu was one of the most productive players in the major leagues in 2005 with 28 homers, 117 RBIs and a .286 average. Despite battling injury much of last season, he still finished third on the team with 62 RBIs and seventh with 14 homers. He is the only player in the Devil Rays clubhouse who has driven in 100 runs - or 90, or even 85 - in a major-league season. He is still young 25 and cheap ($410,200). He has drawn raves from his bosses about how hard he has worked.

But with a week left in spring training, Cantu doesn't know if he will keep his job as the starting second baseman. Or if he'll be used more in a DH and part-time role. Or if he'll even make the team, with demotion to Triple-A Durham a possibility.

"I'm just employee No. 3," Cantu said. "People in the organization, in MLB, on other teams know what I am capable of doing. If in Tampa Bay's mind I have to prove that I can do it again this year, so be it. I haven't heard anything as to what my role is going to be this year.

"There's nothing I can say. I just have to keep working hard and let the situation happen."

Cantu isn't the only Ray with at least some major-league success who has to prove this week he deserves to stay in the majors.

Jonny Gomes, who hit an American League-leading 11 homers in April before struggling with a sore shoulder that eventually required season-ending surgery, could be sent to Triple A. So could Seth McClung, who converted six of seven saves during the final two months last season and came into spring training as the leading closer candidate. And perhaps a few other surprising candidates as the Rays reduce their roster from 37 to 25.

With all the newfangled things the Rays have tried - complex statistical analysis, yoga classes, a uniformed performance coach, detailed video analysis of pitching mechanics, a nutritionist, just about everything short of clubhouse feng shui - they are also trying to install one very old-fashioned concept:

Players have to earn their jobs in the major leagues.

No gimmes

"As we determine the opening day roster and any subsequent moves, it will be a meritocracy," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Players will earn, and have a chance to determine, their playing time."

Or, as Gomes said, "It's definitely the old-school tryout."

It's hardly a novel idea, but it has not always been standard operating procedure with the Rays. Among other changes to the culture. Manager Joe Maddon and Friedman are trying to make it clear that players won't simply be rewarded because of who they are or what they've done in the past.

"No more scholarships - as it should be," Maddon said. "I think in this camp you can already see that. Nobody believes they have it made. They know they've got to do something to make the team, and they're all making the effort. ... We want to make it into a situation that's very competitive. And once you get here you have to fight to stay here because what's coming up behind you is so good also."

Cantu is seeing exactly what they mean. Having struggled last season after breaking a bone in his left foot during an April game, he has worked to re-establish himself, "to get back to the Cantu of '05."

As much as the Rays recognize his efforts, they have not yet seen enough to reward him.

Options galore

B.J. Upton has gotten increased opportunities at second base (and looked increasingly more comfortable), and there is a scenario in which Ty Wigginton could move to second with Carlos Pena starting at first. Plus, the Rays aren't committed to a single set lineup, creating the possibility that Cantu could be used in a platoon role or somewhat regularly at DH.

"We have more options available at second base," Maddon said. "Jorge has worked his butt off. I definitely see him in better shape. I see him moving somewhat better.

"The big thing about Jorge has been his offense. So we're looking to see the bat pick up. A lot of people believe that he's still capable of driving in those 100-plus runs that he did a couple years ago. We're just not ready to make that call."

Cantu has looked good at times in the field this spring, but lackluster and too casual, too. He is hitting .255 with 11 strikeouts and two extra-base hits.

"The big thing for Jorge is that he maintains the consistency he enjoyed in '05, and I think being healthy from the beginning will help that," Friedman said. "His role has yet to be determined, but I'm confident Jorge will help the Rays win games in '07."

If that sounds cryptic, it might be. Cantu has heard the rumors he could be sent down - "It would be a really bad slap at me" - as well as chatter that he could be traded, with the Mets among those said to be interested.

Philosophically, he said he understands what the Rays are trying to do, that "in this business I think everyone knows it's what have you done for the team lately." He is confident he will regain his '05 form and re-establish himself as a big-time player, at a time when he is heading into his first season of arbitration eligibility, if he gets the opportunity.

"I'll put it to you this way: If somebody here on this team believes in me still, I think I'm going to be here still. If somebody doesn't believe in me, I will not be here. It's just like that," Cantu said. "In my mind I think I've done everything I possibly could so far this spring to (prove) to myself that I'm ready to take over the position that I have. Or that I used to have. I don't know yet."

Marc Topkin can be reached at (727) 893-8801 or topkin@sptimes.com