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Ownership turmoil has Lopez in limbo

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


DETROIT -- After he gets settled in his office and tackles the initial issues, such as prioritizing the lengthy list of people to apologize to for Vince Naimoli's gruff behavior, John McHale -- or whoever ends up as chief operating officer -- has some serious baseball business to deal with.

Albie Lopez.

Lopez, 29, is the Rays' best starting pitcher. He can be a free agent at the end of the season. And that means the Rays have a difficult decision to make: whether to sign him to a long-term deal or trade him while the market is stoked.

Lopez, who is 3-1 with an American League-leading 1.66 ERA, wants to stay. "It'd be tough to leave here," said Lopez, one of five original Rays on the active roster. "If it were up to me I'd stay here and see this through until the end, until we became a contending team. That's why we came here."

The Rays, in an idyllic world, naturally would want to keep him. But in the real world, it's going to be expensive.

How much so? Though it is too early to establish a price, know that Lopez's agent, Steve McLoughlin, is looking at contracts signed last winter by Denny Neagle (five years, $51-million) and Darren Dreifort (five years, $55-million) and talking about "taking into account how salaries escalate over a year and the demand for pitching."

The Rays and Lopez talked briefly about a long-term deal last winter but didn't get far, though both sides agreed to the possibility of further conversations during the season.

With the Rays struggling on the field, at the gate and in the executive offices, the chances for such a deal don't seem too promising, especially with the additional uncertainty of a possible sale.

That could change, however, depending on how quickly the COO takes over and how much money -- and good will -- the previously silent team partners might want to spread around.

If the decision is to trade Lopez, general manager Chuck LaMar shouldn't have any trouble making a deal as teams, led by Toronto, will line up for his valuable services.

"A trade wouldn't surprise me at all," Lopez said. "From a business standpoint, I could see it. They're saying they don't have the cash flow or the revenue to pay me. So the only thing I could see is them going ahead to trade me."

Most likely, the Rays will be looking to make several trades, trying to move out some of the veterans and trim payroll in the process. There is word that outfielder Gerald Williams is considered readily available.

If they trade Lopez, they should be able to acquire at least a couple of quality prospects, which wouldn't be all that bad of a haul for a guy who was a setup man for his first 21/2 seasons before moving into the rotation late in May.

Lopez figures he'll end up okay, too, with the opportunity to pitch for a contending team this season and the chance to be a free agent after the season.

What he finds odd is that it already has been talked about so much, even though he assures the speculation won't distract him from his pitching.

"I'm trying to keep things as small as possible right now," Lopez said. "One pitch, one out at a time. Then I can start looking for bigger things."

Much, much bigger things.

NICE TO MEET YA: Jim Fregosi knows what Hal McRae is going through, having stepped in to take over as manager during the season (or spring training) four times.

His advice?

"I don't think you can be too upset with things," said Fregosi, now an executive with the Braves. "You would like some things to be done differently, but I don't think you can pound them down peoples' throats. He was in spring training so he knows what was done. When you walk in out of the cold you don't know what was done. He's just going to have to have a little patience."

SMOOTH TUNES: Greg Vaughn will host "An Evening of Jazz" to benefit the Boys and Girls Clubs of St. Petersburg on May 20 at the Batter's Eye restaurant. Tickets are $50. For information, call (813) 601-7063.

FUTURE WORLD: There is plenty of hype and talk about the prospects in the Rays farm system, but McRae is more concerned with the present. "We need to win with the group of players we have here and improve with the group of players that we have here," McRae said. "There are reinforcements. If this group can get better and the club can get better, there's help on the way."

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