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A pair of originals

[Times photos: Michael Rondou]
Bobby Smith's best chance might be as a utilityman, but he says he'd prefer one spot "if I could write my own script."

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


Once part of Rays' grand plan, Bobby Smith and Randy Winn see themselves fitting in ... somewhere.

ST. PETERSBURG -- To use the hip pop culture reference, Bobby Smith and Randy Winn are survivors, two of 10 players with the Rays from the original 35 selected in the November 1997 expansion draft.

To stick with the TV show theme, they soon might be voted off the island.

Smith and Winn came to the Rays as young talented players who were going to have to earn their spots and would have to displace more heralded teammates to do so.

Three seasons later, they are not-quite-as-young still-talented players who again have to earn their spots and will have to displace more heralded teammates to do so.

"A lot's changed," Winn said, "but a lot's stayed the same."

As much as it might seem like the same old, same old, there is a twist. Both are out of options, which means that if the Rays don't keep them on the team, they risk losing them because both must be exposed to waivers before they can be sent to the minors.

photo
Randy Winn says he finally understands "the only thing you can honestly affect is how you play."
Both, naturally, say they hope it works out with the Rays, but are realistic enough to realize it may not happen. Smith is battling with rookie Brent Abernathy to be the starting second baseman, and could also make the team as a utilityman. Winn is competing for a backup outfield spot, with the possibility of additional playing time if he can be effective from the leadoff slot.

"You kind of grow into a family situation when you're with a team that drafts you because they obviously thought you'd be an impact player," Smith said, "but I want to play against the best players in baseball, and that's at the major-league level. If that's with Tampa Bay, I'd love it. But if it's not, I'm playing at the highest level with somebody else."

Smith, 26, started his Tampa Bay career impressively, hitting .276 while starting 92 games in 1998, earning the third-base slot on the all-rookie team. But he began the next season in the shadow of Wade Boggs' 3,000-hit pursuit and struggled, getting sent down in May and splitting the season between Triple A and the majors.

Smith was the final cut last spring, passed through waivers and opened the season at Triple A, then played well after being recalled in mid-June. But a sprained right knee sidelined him for six weeks and he struggled upon returning.

He describes his three years with the Rays as "a battle all the time," but also claims to enjoy the challenge: "Most guys, things are given to. They don't understand failure. Me? I haven't been given anything. Opportunity, which I appreciate, but that's about it."

Smith says he's proven that he can play in the big leagues, that he absolutely knows he can do it. The problem, in his view, is that the circumstances haven't been right -- yet.

"I've been blessed to have the opportunity to play in big leagues but, yeah, if I could write my own script I'd say, "Bobby Smith, you're the starting third baseman, second baseman, shortstop, whatever it is,"' he said.

"I don't write the script, and I don't have a problem coming out and earning my due. If it takes four years, it takes four years. If it takes five it takes five. But I think eventually I'll get to a point in baseball where I'm going to be the guy. I really feel that way."

Winn, 26, is not as outspoken but no less confident.

He too has bounced between Durham and Tampa Bay the last three seasons and, like Smith, got more playing time as a rookie than in the past two seasons.

Winn has made noticeable improvements in his game, developing into more of an all-around player and fine-tuning his leadoff skills, but that might not matter if the Rays have Greg Vaughn, Gerald Williams and Ben Grieve in the outfield. The competition for a reserve spot could be difficult too, with Jose Guillen, who also is out of options, and Jason Tyner, who is not, battling for the one or two spots.

Thing is, Winn isn't going to get too wrapped up in the battle.

"The first couple years, I worried about some things out of my control," Winn said. "I'd be like, "Okay, let me think, this guy is hitting this and he has this many options and he has this much time in and he did this last year.' Even though I said I wasn't worried about it in the back of my mind I was constantly thinking, "Well, if this happens and this happens, well, then this could happen.' I worried about that stuff.

"Now I've been around the big leagues parts of three seasons and seen a lot of things and I honestly now realize you really can't change. The only thing you can honestly affect is how you play."

He's also been around enough to know that it might not matter, that he could be here all season or packing up tomorrow. Kind of like he had to do when the Rays took him from the Marlins with their 29th expansion draft pick.

"I was thinking about that the other day," Winn said. "It's funny, because it was only a couple of years ago but you look around the clubhouse and there's only a handful of guys left."

A handful, and counting.

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