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Yan earns 1st chance to finish

The Rays add two relievers and give the closer's job to a familiar face in the bullpen.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2001


The Rays add two relievers and give the closer's job to a familiar face in the bullpen.

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays' bullpen managed to get cleared up and more clouded in the span of a few hours Wednesday.

The clearing up happened when manager Larry Rothschild said before Wednesday's 8-0 loss to Boston that Esteban Yan had, at least temporarily, won the closer's job and that Tanyon Sturtze and Ken Hill would be his setup men.

The clouding took place a few hours later when the Rays announced they had agreed to terms with Ariel Prieto and acquired Mike Judd in trade with Los Angeles, and indicated the two have a good chance to make the team as long relievers.

"If they fit in and can pitch the way I've heard they can, then they're going to help us," Rothschild said. "And I think that's going to be the case."

The competition for the closer's job seemed to ebb and flow throughout the spring. Sturtze pitched well at the start of camp. Hill had strong outings in the middle. And Yan has come on recently.

Since giving up five hits and two runs in his first two appearances, Yan has allowed four hits and one run in seven appearances, including strong back-to-back outings Monday and Tuesday. In 91/3 innings, he has allowed nine hits and no walks, and struck out seven.

"He's progressing, and he's right where we want him to be right now," Rothschild said.

Though none of the three has closed regularly in the major or minor leagues before, Yan has the most experience in late-inning situations, though he is 1-for-10 in save situations.

"I'm not going to put the burden all on him, and if there's times when he's going to need help, then we're going to have it for him," Rothschild said. "I think going in, at least to open up, I'll put him in that slot and try to get to him with Sturtze and Hill and keep mixing it up. Right now that's the way it's washing out, though that's subject to change. But I think it's the best way to go right now."

For Hill, just making the team was a victory. The 35-year-old right-hander was released by the Angels and White Sox during a rough 2000 season and had no other offers when he signed a minor-league deal 10 days before the start of spring training to compete for a spot in the Tampa Bay bullpen.

Hill hadn't pitched in relief since 1987, when he was a minor-leaguer in the St. Louis system, but he found he could adjust to -- and even like -- the work.

"There was a lot of uncertainty, but it worked out good," Hill said. "I came in here, and I did everything they wanted me to do. It's definitely satisfying."

Sturtze, who was impressive as a starter in limited duty last season, said he was disappointed to not win the closer's job but still excited by the opportunity.

"I have a big role in the bullpen," he said. "I hope everyone does well because it's all about winning. But nothing is in granite."

Having traded Roberto Hernandez in a deal for Ben Grieve, the Rays know they could be in for some, um, exciting late-game situations, but the hope Yan, Sturtze and Hill can get the precious final outs.

They apparently weren't as confident in the relievers competing for other spots in the bullpen.

"We needed innings out of our bullpen," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "And to start asking young guys to give you innings out of the bullpen is very hard to do. Prieto and Judd have been around. They have a little more experience than some of the young guys we've been dealing with in spring training, and we expect them to immediately come in here and give us more innings."

Prieto, 31, was mainly a starter in parts of five seasons with Oakland. He signed with Cleveland in February, bypassing an offer from the Rays but was released this week. Judd, 25, was a reliever during his 11/2 seasons in the Yankees minor-league system but has been primarily a starter since a trade to Los Angeles in June 1996.

Though neither is a proven reliever, they may have been the best available candidates because pitching -- especially low-cost, dependable relief pitching -- is at something of a premium. Both will be added to the 40-man roster and would have to be exposed to waivers before being sent to the minors, but if the Rays can find a better deal, they could make that, too.

If Prieto and Judd make the team, joining Yan, Sturtze and Hill, that would leave one slot in the bullpen. And it almost certainly would go to a left-hander, most likely Doug Creek.

That means there apparently is no room for veteran Rusty Meacham, who had a 0.87 ERA after allowing one run and five hits in 101/3 innings, as well as young right-handers Dan Wheeler, Jason Standridge and Travis Phelps.

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