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As Rays' bats warm, their arms improve

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG- Tampa Bay's clobbering queue (Vaughn-Canseco-McGriff-Castilla) is yet to severely bruise. So far, a wimpy two homers from the famous, expensive Devil Rays Fourbaggers.

It's only spring.

Good news is, D-Rays pitching is throbbing with encouragement. Yes, even with a 20-hit Wednesday whacking in a 15-5 loss to Pittsburgh. "We've seen a lot of good things," manager Larry Rothschild said, "but, yes, we know it's still March."

Larry is no Stooge.

So, using a pencil, draw a smiley face. D-Rays mound goodies do not yet deserve the indelibility of ink. There is raw talent. Hope. Promise. A deeper pitching reservoir than ever, but still with chunks of uncertainty.

Wilson Alvarez, the supposed ace, has a bum shoulder. Who can know if the lumpy lefty will win 17 games, or 11, or a mere half-dozen? Nothing seems to really change. Wilson operates somewhere between cloudy uncertainty and sunny promise.

Beyond their tentative No. 1, the Rays have promising propensities. Juan Guzman and Steve Trachsel bring deep-dish experience. Savvy. Stability. Both new to Rothschild's rack, they should win 10 to 15 games apiece while chewing 200-plus innings. Even if the Pirates did give Trachsel a Wednesday spanking.

Guzman took some knocks from the New York Yankees in his latest start. "Juan's history suggests a slow starter who needs all of spring training to become effective," Rothschild said. "We're counting on a solid summer."

Let's talk young guns.

Ryan Rupe is the fourth starter. He's 6-5, 230 pounds and oozing with promise. There were 1999 swatches of Rupe brilliance in a 8-9 rookie season. Fifteen days from his 25th birthday, the Texan has the goods to, before a new century gets too old, become the first Rays 20-game winner.

No, I'm not . . . man overboard.

Baseball's spring can, of course, mesmerize. A year ago, the D-Rays rotation began with Alvarez, Rolando Arrojo and Tony Saunders. All wound up on the disabled list. Wilson had a lukewarm 9-9 record. Arrojo wound up being traded to Colorado.

Saunders cracked his left arm throwing a pitch. Today, he is heroically rehabbing. Gutting it across a chasm of uncertainty. Doing more and longer tosses. Tony's true future isn't apt to be known for months.

Nothing in Tampa Bay's camp is more intriguing than an overloaded scramble to become the No. 5 starter. Chad Ogea, Esteban Yan and Dan Wheeler show varying degrees of dazzle.

"Ogea is a nice surprise," pitching coach Rick Williams said. "Coming back from double knee trouble, he shows no bad effects." If the vet from Louisiana, at 29, rediscovers the Ogea skills of the mid-'90s in Cleveland, the guy is a steal.

Yan is a load of Dominican heat. Erratic in 1999, he is working on better body control. "Este can get overviolent with his motion," Williams said. "That's okay. You can push it to the limit, but when Yan goes over the red line it can mean problems with control and command of pitches.

"He's doing great with adjustments. Seemingly retaining his quickness of pitches while accomplishing better balance. Nobody has been more impressive in camp than Yan."

One fellow equals Este.

Wheeler, at 22, was expected to labor at least one more season in the minors. A dominating spring has caused Rothschild and Williams to rethink. "He's now definitely a candidate to be our fifth starter," the manager commented. Wheeler's latest start lasted five innings. He allowed one run.

Williams says of the kid, "Wheels doesn't have the look of age 22. Rupe was like that a year ago. Wheels is relentless against hitters. Has better off-speed pitches now. He keeps trying to tell us, "I'm ready now.' It's fun to watch."

While the Tampa Bay pitching deck is now deeper in face cards, there is nothing that resembles a powerhouse ace. Nobody close to Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson.

Alvarez has underachieved. Rupe and Wheeler have legitimate chances to become bona fide aces, someday. All of which sweetens and intensifies recent chatter about trading with Minnesota for Brad Radke.

Tampa Bay is blessed with a quality closer in Roberto Hernandez. After disruptions in 1999, the setup department seems resecured with Jim Mecir and Albie Lopez. Mecir missed most of last season with an injury. Lopez struggled with personal problems back home in Arizona.

I've not gotten to John Burkett, Norm Charlton, Dave Eiland, Jim Morris, Bryan Rekar, Rick White and other experienced options. "We unquestionably have more depth," Williams said, "than ever."

Fourbaggers will smash.

Pitching is on the rise.

Bring on April, May and . . .

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