By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- Tampa Bay's attempt to take a shortcut to contention did not work as planned last season, but managing general partner Vince Naimoli said he is confident the team is still on the right track.
"Chuck (LaMar, general manager) knows where he is going," Naimoli said. "He always talked about this as a five-year plan. We deviated a little from the five-year plan last year, but I think we're back on that now."
According to the five-year plan, the Rays would build from within and be ready to contend in 2002 with the help of specific veterans added to the mix.
A spending spree before Tampa Bay's third season did not move the Devil Rays out of last place in the American League East, but Naimoli said he is satisfied with the core of young talent that has been assembled.
LaMar said last week he would expect the Rays to win 80 or more games this season, and Naimoli also expressed optimism.
"I'm going to keep my fingers crossed," Naimoli said. "You still can't control injuries. The teams with the $100-million payrolls can afford to have the spare parts on the bench. We don't have the spare parts. No team in our category does. We have to keep everyone healthy and on the field. The talent is there. It's a question of keeping them healthy and on the field."
Tampa Bay began last season with a payroll in the $62-million range and likely will be around $55-million this year.
Naimoli said this year's payroll had more to do with LaMar's building plan than cash-flow issues. He has expressed concern in the past about less-than-expected crowds at Tropicana Field but said he was happy with the current level of support from the community.
He attributed last year's 69-win season to a rash of injuries that wiped out the starting rotation and limited third baseman Vinny Castilla.
"The old saying is that things go in cycles. Hopefully things are aligned in our favor this year," Naimoli said. "We do deserve a break. I mean, it's about time."
EMERGENCY WORKER: Utility infielder Russ Johnson has been working as a catcher this week with the idea of increasing his value. "If I become adequate at it, it'd be a great asset to have," Johnson said. "If something happens one day and they find themselves in a tight situation, I can get back there behind the dish for a game until they can call someone up. I can still play shortstop, second and third, so this would just be a bonus for them if they need me."
The Rays normally have carried two catchers on the roster and identified another position player as the emergency catcher.
GETTING TO WORK: Shortstop Felix Martinez, infielder Andy Sheets and outfielder Carl Crawford reported Tuesday. The Rays have 59 of 69 players in camp with the first full-squad workout scheduled for Thursday. Outfielder Greg Vaughn, third baseman Vinny Castilla and first baseman Fred McGriff have not checked in.
SIGNED: Catcher Toby Hall agreed to a one-year contract.