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Rays' Huff just awaiting his turn at corner

Rookie third baseman appears stuck behind Vinny Castilla but says he'll be patient.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The present and future of the Rays at third base sit eight lockers and perhaps a year or more apart in the clubhouse at Florida Power Park: Vinny Castilla, hoping to provide the punch he couldn't deliver last season; Aubrey Huff, hoping to pick up when and where Castilla leaves off.

When is the big question.

"It may be that no matter how good a spring he has, we'll have to send him back (to Triple-A Durham) if Vinny is healthy and ready to play," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "Vinny's the veteran, and we have him signed for one more year. So the big thing with Aubrey is that he continues to develop."

And being sent down can come down to numbers.

Huff plays only at third and first (where Steve Cox backs up Fred McGriff). And with several Rays who can fill the utility role playing second, third and shortstop, Huff could be expendable and bound for the minors.

That, LaMar said, will reflect not on Huff's ability but his promise.

"I remember one year (as assistant general manager at Atlanta) when we had to send Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez, Chipper Jones, all those guys, back to Triple A because of veterans having contracts at the major-league level," LaMar said.

Huff, 24, came up from Durham on Aug. 1, becoming the first position player the Rays drafted (1998, fifth round) to make it to the majors. He batted .287 with four home runs (the only rookie last year to take Roger Clemens deep) and 14 RBI in 39 games.

"But he has to wait until his time is ready," LaMar said. Huff's turn could come this year if Castilla is injured again, fails to put up big numbers or is traded. "Or (Huff) may have to wait until next year," LaMar said.

Castilla, 33, averaged 40 home runs and 118 RBI from 1996-99 at Colorado before the Rays traded for him. Injuries pretty much wrecked his 2000 season (85 games, .221, six home runs, 42 RBI), but he had a solid winter playing in his native Mexico.

"I feel healthy, strong, got my confidence back, got my swing back," Castilla said. "Maybe people think I still hurt. Maybe I have to prove I'm healthy and I've still got it."

Castilla is in the final year of a contract that will pay him $7-million this season. If he is healthy and is playing well by July or sooner, and the Rays appear to be going nowhere, they might be inclined to trade Castilla to a contender because they have Huff to plug in.

For the time being, Castilla pretty much has to play himself out of the starting job. Although platooning Castilla and Huff at third is not an option, manager Larry Rothschild said, he could envision a circumstance in which Huff might start the season with the Rays. "If he blows us away this spring with a lot of things, then we'll evaluate where we are," Rothschild said.

Even Huff on occasion sounds like a member of the Castilla fan club. "Him being healthy and a two-time All-Star, he's good for this team," Huff said. "All I can do is be patient. That's the best thing about being a player; you don't have to make those kinds of decisions."

Neither does Wade Boggs. "That's not my problem," said the former third baseman, five-time batting champion and now Rays hitting coach. "But it's a great problem to have. It's a better problem than not having two guys over there that you can go to." At this stage, Huff seems to be following Boggs' career path. Each came to the majors with hot bats and less-than-sterling fielding prowess. By career's end, Boggs had a pair of Gold Gloves to his credit.

Said Huff: "They know I can hit. The question mark is about my defense. I have to go out there and show I can play exceptionally well on defense."

Said Boggs: "I saw (his fielding) last April, and August, and I'm seeing him play now. And it's improving each and every day."

Asked whether Huff's fielding could be holding him back, Rothschild said: "His glove? No. He's still a young player. ... He needs the experience of playing to get better and better."

And if that means playing every day in Triple A, Huff said, it's not the end of the world.

"Once you've been up here, you don't ever want to go back down," he said. "But there's worse places to go than Durham. It's a great place to play. And if I have to be patient, it's as good a place as any to be patient at."

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