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Defensive problems plaguing Martinez

By JOHN ROMANO and MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 18, 2001


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Felix Martinez fell into his job with the Rays this time last year because shortstop Kevin Stocker had become a defensive liability. Martinez may have lost his job this week for the same reason.

Rays manager Hal McRae said Thursday that Andy Sheets will be playing shortstop for the next week or so and, if he handles the defensive chores adequately, will remain in the lineup.

"If Sheets plays well, Sheets will play shortstop for a while," McRae said. "Sheets' starts will depend on how he plays. The ball is really in his court. If he plays well enough, he'll get to play for a while."

Martinez, who is 27 today, was spectacular on defense last season and was given much of the credit for the strides made in the pitching staff's ERA in the second half of 2000. His defense has fallen woefully short of that standard this season.

Martinez has made a major-league leading 12 errors, including a miscue Wednesday that started the Royals' comeback.

"I have to work on my defense. I've been struggling on defense. I don't know what's happened," Martinez said. "I've missed a couple of balls. That's not me. Before I would make errors on my throws, but not my fielding. I don't know what's happened."

As far back as spring training, Rays officials said Martinez did not seem to be bringing the same passion for defense onto the field as last year.

After getting off to a hot start offensively, Martinez's bat also has slipped. He is 6-for-48 and his average has dropped from .320 to .244.

Sheets, 29, comes up from Triple-A Durham with a reputation as a strong defensive player with limited offense. He has hit .213 in parts of five major-league seasons.

"That was always the knock on me was that I needed to be a better hitter," Sheets said. "I've always been a pretty good fielder, so I feel confident in my defensive skills."

McRae said he is not looking for exceptional offense from that spot in the lineup, just strong defense.

"The shortstop position is the most important in the infield," McRae said. "It's tough to win when a club doesn't get good play at shortstop."

ROLLS' ROLE: With Russ Johnson going on the disabled list, McRae anticipated using Sheets for the bulk of playing time at second base. Those duties now will fall to rookie Damian Rolls.

Rolls has hit well in limited duty and is tied for the team lead in stolen bases with eight, but is more of a natural third baseman. If Rolls appears to struggle, McRae mentioned the possibility of bringing up prospect Brent Abernathy from Triple-A Durham.

READY TO GO: Albie Lopez threw another bullpen session before Thursday's game and was pronounced fit for Saturday's start against Detroit. Lopez missed his last start with a groin pull. "He threw about 50 pitches today and didn't feel any pain," pitching coach Bill Fischer said.

STILL HOLDING: Tigers president John McHale Jr., considered the leading contender for the Rays' chief operating officer position, said Thursday there had been no new developments. While McHale said he had no expectations for changes today, he said there was a possibility the situation could develop quickly.

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