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Castilla belongs on bench

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2001


It's the shortest honeymoon since Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger. Rick didn't get to first base, and the Devil Rays have had similar problems.

Baseball crises aren't supposed to erupt in mid-April, but the turbulence of first-fortnight American League malfunctions has rocked the Rays even before late IRS filers could get into their traditional April 15 queues at post offices.

Vinny Castilla, a $7-million-a-year third baseman, has been benched in favor of Aubrey Huff, a kid just up from the minors who gets paid pretty close to the big-league minimum wage.

If something positive, stimulating and promising doesn't happen soon for a Tampa Bay franchise desperate to attract larger crowds to Tropicana Field, the queasiness of the season's opening month could become full-blown nausea by Memorial Day.

Swallow hard. Assess.

Maybe it's not so dumb to plant Vinny in the dugout. Instead of powerful and dependable, he has been puny and putrid. Castilla is a nice man but this isn't a PR league.

For two seasons, the erstwhile Colorado Rockies slugger has appeared to be swinging a balsa-wood bat, except for an inexplicable aberration a week ago when he cranked a 478-foot homer, the longest in Trop history.

This fellow turns 34 in July. Right now, it's difficult to see an upside. Vinny's numbers are far worse than NASDAQ's. Hired to pump immediate thump into the toddler Rays, he doesn't even hit many whoppers in batting practice. California has suffered less power outage.

Benching him, quite possibly, is not nearly as lousy an idea as was Tampa Bay general manager Chuck LaMar's signing of Castilla in the first place, serving up a two-year, $13-million deal. Write it off as a judgment misfire.

Castilla is understandably exorcised. Fuming. Vinny says he wants out. I mean, who'd miss him? If he wants to play, Castilla's option is to quickly overwhelm manager Larry Rothschild and LaMar with wonderful attitude, diligent practice and some loud pops during batting practice that at least suggest the old Rockies bat hasn't gone totally comatose.

If he's through with the Rays, it would be another bad idea for LaMar to simply release Castilla. That would mean another team could sign Vinny, paying him a piddling $200,000 for the rest of this season, while Tampa Bay is stuck for $6.8-million.

Chuck's hottest hope has to be that some other major-league GM can be coaxed into becoming enamored with the Vinny project, figuring the calamity from Colorado can rekindle his offensive sting. If the Rays could find a franchise to pay, say, $3-mil of Castilla's salary, while Tampa Bay swallows $4-mil, it might be the best of outs.

Taking a floundering tycoon like Castilla out of the lineup should be a signal, with flashing red lights and screeching sirens, to other Rays veterans.

If highly paid elders play with two-bit production and/or nickel-and-dime attitudes, Rothschild seems to be showing a willingness to turn his bench into Millionaires Row.

Okay, enough negatives.

If the youngster, Huff, wobbles with a buck-thirty-nine batting average and/or defensive inadequacies at third base, Rothschild may well go back to Castilla. Hoping that enough anger, pride and zeal will have festered in Vinny to goad him to at least becoming an acceptable contributor.

Hold not your Tampa Bay breath.

When a seven-figure vet is flubbing, why stick with him endlessly, just because a heavy contract is involved?

I'd sooner have Huff hitting .265 with 18 homers than to see Castilla producing those exact numbers. You figure Aubrey will keep getting better, that he has many seasons to attain excellence. Vinny was paid to hit 40 homers and bat in 100 runs. He has yet to do half that.

If similar situations evolve at other positions, perhaps Rothschild will be prompted to bring up Brent Abernathy to play second base, to elevate Josh Hamilton from the boonies to work the outfield and give Toby Hall a real shot at catcher.

You hearing this, vets?

Maybe all this is exaggerated, with some hair-trigger panic involved among Rays management.

If we could just see players busting their backsides, youngsters and old pros alike, grinding overtime to turn a disturbing April into a better May, delivering legit hope for June, July and the rest of summer, then the leash on any jock can be extended.

Rays owners are ravenous to sell more tickets, generate more money and create more Tampa Bay baseball interest. April has been troubling. It's right to not sit tight.

Make it evident to the public, you Rays, which fellows really care and who among you is opting to just coast. Do it soon, please. Like in the next couple of days, in time for the next Trop homestand.

Rotten just won't work.

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