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Cash crunch keeps LaMar's hands tied

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 22, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- By about spring training, the Rays finally got around to admitting that last year's plan was a mistake, that a big part of their present-day problems stem from spending millions to bring in veterans who haven't played well or, in some cases, at all.

Now they say a big reason they can't do much to get out of the mess is that they don't have any more money to spend.

"We're not to that point yet, we cannot afford those kinds of mistakes," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "Maybe we thought we could. Maybe when we went and brought in these veteran players, maybe ... the general manager didn't know that we weren't going to be able to spend money like this every year.

"Maybe that's the case. All of a sudden we went out and didn't hit on some of those big ones; now all of a sudden we have to retreat, and that's why we had the big change in directions."

Having increased the payroll from $37-million in 1999 to about $64-million on opening day 2000, the Rays indeed are headed the other way.

LaMar made a series of moves to shed payroll starting in the second half of last season, picking up some impressive prospects along the way.

The result, however, was that he wasn't able to make substantial changes to a team that won 69 games. Players such as Johnny Damon and Alex Gonzalez were available, at a premium price, but the Rays' only significant addition was outfielder Ben Grieve, and they had to give up closer Roberto Hernandez.

They opened this season at about $56-million, with the strong possibility more cuts are coming.

"Once you start spending money in this game you better be in position to continually spend money," LaMar said. "Once you go from being a building, fledgling team ... once you get in that mode of going out and getting those players, then either you have to reload if those players don't work, or re-sign those players."

The other scenario, which seems more likely, is to get rid of them.

Any, or even all, of the veterans are potential trade candidates. Gerald Williams and Albie Lopez are likely to be the most sought-after, but the Rays probably would entertain all offers, seeking deals that allow them to make the team younger and less expensive. (And with rumors that the minority partners are planning to buy out Vince Naimoli, it's hard to say how far LaMar may be ordered to go.)

At the same time, they're trying to win games to stimulate interest and attendance. But with $15-million of the payroll tied up in still-recovering pitchers Juan Guzman and Wilson Alvarez, and with another $7-million committed to third baseman Vinny Castilla, whom they don't seem to want/need anymore, that, too, is a difficult proposition.

"The organization has $22-million invested in those three players, so we're playing basically with a $33-million payroll," LaMar said. "No excuses there, but it doesn't match up: $33-million and a farm system that's not quite ready to produce. ... The truth of the matter is if that $22-million was performing close to what we thought it would, even close, this is a different team."

JOB DETAILS: Hal McRae signed on to manage through the 2003 season for a deal said to be worth about $1.5-million. He gets a raise to approximately $400,000 this year, then salaries of about $500,000 in 2002 and $600,000 in 2003.

SCREEN SAVERS: The Choice Seat computer screens have been removed from the pricey Home Plate Box Seats. Basically, the Rays say the company wanted to skip a season so it could revise its software and the screens could be reinstalled in 2002. "It was all their decision," senior vice president John Higgins said.

PAINFUL DECISION: Larry Rothschild handled being fired better than LaMar doing the firing. "He was the first manager I ever hired, the first manager I ever fired and a personal friend," LaMar said.

HOLA: The Rays quietly signed Julio Franco to a minor-league contract and assigned him to the Mexico City Tigers. Franco, 42, hit .423 in 1999 to win the Mexican League batting title, then played in Korea last season.

HOO-RAYS: Alvarez, Lopez, Esteban Yan, Felix Martinez and broadcasters Enrique Oliu and Ricardo Taveras will be at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. ... 100-year-old Karl Swanson, the oldest living former major-leaguer, is scheduled to throw out the first pitch Tuesday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the American League.

Injuries take bite out of Big Mac

Mark McGwire's chance of surpassing Hank Aaron's career home run record continues to fade as Big Mac went on the disabled list last week for the 10th time in his career. McGwire has missed more than 300 games in his career while on the disabled list, and that does not include times in September when there was no need to put him on the DL because of expanded rosters. Using a formula of 3.3 at-bats per game (his career average) multiplied by the number of games missed during each DL stint and divided by the number of home runs per at-bat during each season in question, we estimate McGwire has lost about 103 home runs. And that is a conservative estimate, not taking into account, for instance, the number of games the past two seasons in which he has been on the active roster but limited to pinch-hitting duty. If we add those home runs, McGwire would be at 658 and closing in on Willie Mays. Instead he has 555, 200 behind Aaron. Even if he maintains his remarkable pace of one home run every 10.63 at-bats, McGwire would need 2,125 at-bats to catch Aaron. At age 37, that means another 4-5 years of optimum performance, which has to be considered highly doubtful.

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