By MARC TOPKIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2001
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Talk here and in Kansas City was about how quickly last week's three-team, nine-players-plus-cash trade that netted the Devil Rays Ben Grieve came together.
There was only one flaw with that observation: The Rays had been working on the deal for months. Well, not that deal exactly. But the concept of one.
In the weeks after last season, the Rays learned two interesting things: Kansas City would consider trading outfielder Johnny Damon and was interested in Roberto Hernandez.
The Rays and Royals talked, but Tampa Bay general manager Chuck LaMar was of the opinion that Damon, with a possible $8-million salary this year via arbitration and the chance to leave as a free agent after the season, wasn't right for the Rays.
"In trying to make us as competitive as we can be in the short term and find someone to be a building block in the future, he just didn't fit," LaMar said.
Several multi-team discussions sprouted as word of the Royals' interest in Hernandez spread, but there was still no fit as the Rays sought young, low-priced talent.
Going into December's winter meetings, the Rays read in the paper that the A's were considering trading Grieve, a tremendous talent who had been one of their building blocks.
LaMar told Oakland counterpart Billy Beane of his interest; Beane said they weren't shopping Grieve. But he gave LaMar the impression the A's felt this was their year to make a title run and might consider anything.
The door opened, casual talks about Grieve continued into January. So did separate discussions about Hernandez. Then it all came together one recent afternoon.
"Billy called and said he had just hung up with (Kansas City general manager) Allard Baird and said they had interest in Johnny Damon and (the Royals) would like to have Roberto Hernandez. Is there someone? ... I knew, but I waited until the next day to call him back and said we'd take Ben Grieve. He said he was hoping we wanted a package of prospects," LaMar said.
"After that, things happened very quickly."
Ultimately, it hinged on LaMar to do the deal. As difficult as he knew it would be to replace Hernandez, he couldn't resist the chance to acquire Grieve, thinking the 24-year-old slugger could be a key part of their expected success well into the future.
"For a three-way deal, it seemed to happen very quickly, but it was because of our extensive talks, our knowledge that Kansas City wanted Roberto, our talks at the winter meetings about Ben, all those facts," LaMar said.
"What's unique about this is that these are three relatively small- to medium-market clubs who didn't have the money this year to go out on the free-agent market, yet through an old-fashioned baseball trade were able to fill their needs," LaMar said. "I think all three teams are extremely happy."
VINNY, VINNY: News from Mexico is good; Vinny Castilla is reportedly playing well and feeling great. Bigger news, at least to some Rays followers, is that LaMar is talking with a couple of teams interested in acquiring Castilla.
Castilla, coming off his worst season, has worked with a personal trainer all winter and is said to be in the best shape of his career. He has been posting impressive numbers for Hermosillo (hitting .360 at last report), and the Rays officials who went to see him play, assistant general manager Bart Braun and scout Jerry Gardner, were enthused. "All the reports are good," LaMar said. "They were extremely encouraged by what they saw."
LaMar said the Rays are not looking to trade Castilla, who is due to make $7-million this season. "We think he'll rebound and have a fine year," LaMar said. "But if we got the right deal that would help us, we would be dealing from strength. We're not afraid to go into the season with Aubrey Huff. That would not bother us at all."
SWEET SWINGER: Having spent three years as a minor-league teammate, Steve Cox knows Grieve as well as anyone. And he is excited to have his buddy aboard. "I've told people over the years that to me he has the most exciting swing in baseball," Cox said.
ARBITRARY DECISIONS: The arbitration filing deadline is Monday and the Rays have five eligible players: outfielder Jose Guillen and pitchers Albie Lopez, Bryan Rekar, Paul Wilson and closer designate Esteban Yan. Figures are exchanged Thursday. LaMar said the Rays would be willing to discuss a long-term deal with Lopez now and/or during the season.
MISCELLANY: LaMar said it is very unlikely at this late date the Rays would sign any free-agent pitchers but could acquire a veteran reliever in a trade and take on some salary. ... Owners meet in Arizona this week to discuss a number of concepts, including a worldwide amateur draft and a competitive balance draft to help the weaker teams.