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Rebuilding starts with younger, cheaper club

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 24, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- It's too late, however appealing the thought might be, for the Rays to start over. But from what new chief operating officer John McHale Jr. says, they are going to start doing things differently.

And given the way things have worked out thus far, any semblance of a new plan has to be welcomed.

In the midst of their fourth season, the Rays are going to start building, or rebuilding, like a traditional expansion team.

"We have a major-league roster profile which is inconsistent with our status as a 31/2-year-old expansion franchise and is at odds with our revenue status," McHale said, "and that's a situation I have to rectify right now."

Translation: They're going to find some way to dump at least some, if not all, of the high-priced veterans.

No longer are they going to go after high-priced free agents. They're going to build around the young players they have, mixing in a few less-distinguished veterans, while relying on the productivity of their farm system.

They're going to field a team that is younger and less expensive than they've had, and they're going to hope the fans are willing to grow with them.

"Unless you are the beneficiary of extraordinary revenues," McHale said, "you have to grow slowly."

While careful not to criticize general manager Chuck LaMar, or any team officials or managing general partners who might have influenced LaMar's decisions, McHale said they will take a different approach.

For example?

"It's not normally the case you can speculatively invest as an established medium-revenue or upper-revenue franchise would do, which is something this franchise has done, and it's turned out to be a loser's bet," McHale said.

Somehow, the player payroll, which swelled to $62-million last season and was $56-million this past opening day, is going to be cut. Specifics haven't been determined, but McHale said the Rays likely will be "looking to reel back in total salary commitment a considerable amount next year."

McHale said some of the past decisions, such as the signing of free agents that caused the team to forfeit draft picks and the length of some of the multimillion-dollar contracts, have left the Rays further behind than they should be at this point of their development.

"I think we're diverted," he said, "but I don't think we're seriously set back."

As for LaMar, McHale said he appears to have done a good job in scouting and player development. "There's a lot more to being a general manager, of course, and in my experience much of what a general manager is publicly judged on is probably not his idea to start with," McHale said. "Whether that's the case here or not, I don't know yet."

WELL-DEVELOPED: Reliever Victor Zambrano had a difficult climb to the major leagues, and that extends beyond the 5 1/2 years he spent in the Rays farm system.

Before that, Zambrano spent two seasons as a middle infielder in the Yankees organization. He was released in February 1996 after hitting .207 with the Gulf Coast League team, and the Rays signed him a month later and made him a pitcher.

Zambrano never had pitched, but at that point, as a 20-year-old whose lifelong dream to play pro ball seemed to have been dashed, he was willing to try. He had to learn a lot, and he had to come back from elbow surgery along the way, but he made it.

"That is what I had to do to get here," Zambrano said.

BOBBLING ALONG: Not to say it's only money that matters, but by noon Saturday there were a dozen Fred McGriff bobblehead dolls up for auction on ebay.com. Bids reached the $25 range.

DRAFT BREEZE: There is a good chance a deal will be reached this week with top draft pick Dewon Brazelton, who is likely to get a package worth around $4-million that includes a September call-up. Talks also are progressing with No. 2 pick Jon Switzer, the Arizona State left-hander.

JUST WONDERING: Is there any truth to the talk of both Chicago teams, and possibly the Yankees, having interest in McGriff? ... How persuasive will Clear Channel Communications be in trying to switch Rays games from WFLA-AM 970 to WDAE-AM 620? ... Is dugout talk about trying Damian Rolls in the outfield a precursor to the promotion of second baseman Brent Abernathy?

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