Rays look East to bolster pen

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 8, 2007

LAKE BUENA VISTA - The Rays' search for relief help may again lead to Japan.

Right-handers Kazuo Fukumori and Masahide Kobayashi are among several pitchers eligible to leave as free agents, and the Rays have been linked to both in Japanese media reports.

"There's some guys that we've got some interest in," Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman said without naming names. "We sent a couple (scouts) over there for extended periods of time. There's some guys that may be posted (which requires a bid for their rights) and some guys who may file for free agency or recently have that we've got our eye on, so we'll see how that market unfolds."

Though the Rays had a bad experience importing reliever Shinji Mori, who was hurt and never pitched in a game, the success (and relatively modest cost) of the Red Sox's Hideki Okajima and the Dodgers' Takashi Saito has led to increased interest from several teams.

Fukumori, 31, had 49 saves over the past three seasons with Rakuten and a career 3.68 ERA but had some elbow problems this past season. Kobayashi, 33, averaged 30-plus saves over the past seven seasons for Chiba Lotte and has a career 2.79 ERA.

Another possibility is Chiba Lotte RHP Yasuhiko Yabuta, a 34-year-old middle reliever who has yet to declare for free agency.

DUKES RETURN? Conventional wisdom is that the Rays are hoping troubled outfielder Elijah Dukes shows enough promise playing in the Dominican Republic that they can trade him in the winter.

But there is also a possibility that despite being dropped from the Rays roster in June due to a series of off-field and personal issues, he could rejoin the team next season.

"It's too early to answer that; there's a lot more that we want to go through," Friedman said. "I will say that there have been a lot of positive strides in the last couple months, but we've got a ways to go."

Friedman said the Rays have gotten "very positive" reports from officials of the Licey Tigers, for whom Dukes has hit .333 with one homer in nine games.

TRADE TALKS: The Rays' willingness to consider all trade possibilities leads to lots of speculation. In addition to the Cubs, White Sox and a half-dozen others having interest in Carl Crawford, another scenario floating around the meetings is a deal with Minnesota in which the Rays give up Delmon Young and the Twins part with promising pitching prospect Matt Garza.