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Huff doesn't signal rush to get younger

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2001


BALTIMORE -- With the team off to a slow start, with enthusiasm at home already waning, the decision to promote Aubrey Huff and bench Vinny Castilla would seem to be the Rays' initial step toward the future, the first sign of things, and prospects, to come.

But don't plan on Josh Hamilton Day at the Trop just yet.

General manager Chuck LaMar says the Huff move does not mean the Rays have accelerated their plans to turn things over to the young prospects.

"We said this was going to be a year of transition, but not to cost us wins," LaMar said. "With Aubrey Huff playing third base we don't think we've weakened ourselves to win that day's game. He happens to be a young player with a fine future in the major leagues. A number of our young players are where they should be, developing at the level they should develop at. Some will develop quicker than others. Some the fans of Tampa Bay will see this year.

"This was a baseball move."

The Rays simply felt Huff was ready, and more ready than second baseman Brent Abernathy or catcher Toby Hall or Hamilton or pitcher Jason Standridge (though he might be here soon). "We have young players at other positions, good young players coming, but they're not as close to the major leagues as Aubrey Huff," LaMar said.

Decisions on the others likely will be made for a combination of reasons: how well the young players are doing; and how poorly the veterans are playing.

"We'll make a move if I think it's advantageous to this club," LaMar said. "This is not a mass situation where you'll see all of our young players coming up in the week or two."

COUNTING HEADS: Club executives rarely discuss team financial information with the local media, but managing general partner Vince Naimoli told the New York Daily News that 1.6-million is an important number in terms of attendance.

"We can break even at 1.6-million, but obviously that's not acceptable," Naimoli was quoted as saying. "We've said all along we're on a five-year plan and with (a) crop of really talented young players on the verge of arriving, I'm confident we'll be right on schedule. We tried to give it a jump start last year, but it didn't quite work out because of all the injuries."

To draw 1.6-million, the Rays would have to average 19,753. If speculation that season ticket sales have dipped to about 10,000 is accurate, that could be a tough sell.

The Rays have not reached 1.6-million since their inaugural season. They drew 1,549,052 (for 80 games) last season and 1,562,967 (for 81) in 1999.

THEME OF THE DAY: After a slew of critical articles and other media observations about their slow start, some Rays officials are preaching in team meetings a "they're-out-to-get-us" attitude. Said manager Larry Rothschild: "It's pretty early to start jumping to conclusions about anything here, and that's been done enough."

MR. SMITH GOES ... : Bobby Smith remains in limbo. The Rays haven't worked out a trade and have until Wednesday to get him though waivers or release him.

Though some say the Rays didn't give him much of a chance, shipping him out after six games, others say they waited weeks or even years too long.

Sure, there is a chance Smith will move on to another team, find the consistency he always has lacked here and become the productive major-leaguer his talents indicate he should be. "Some guys make the adjustments and some guys don't," Rothschild said. "Maybe he will in time, I don't know. More time, I should say."

If Smith does, that's good for him. But it's not bad for the Rays.

For years, this organization has hung on to every player with talent or potential that it could, hoping the players would finally blossom or rediscover their ability as a Ray or bring something valuable in a trade. At the same time, team officials seemed concerned that it would look bad if a player they let go prospered elsewhere.

Those times seem to be changing, and it's about time.

HOO-RAYS: The Rays opened a kiosk at St. Petersburg's hip BayWalk shopping/entertainment complex offering merchandise and tickets with no service charge. ... Garth Brooks' Touch 'Em All Foundation will give a $15,000 grant to the team's Rays of Hope Foundation for use in programs involving children. ... There will be Kids' Opening Day events Saturday, and Sunday is Youth Baseball/Softball Day with ticket discounts, an on-field parade of teams and a clinic with Ben Grieve and Steve Cox.

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