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2000 Rays take 'step backwards'

GM's choices: add to veteran group or youth and future.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 1, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- The losses have been staggering, much more than the Devil Rays would have ever expected this season.

And that's just on the field.

Because the Rays increased their payroll in an attempt to improve attendance, expectations were significantly higher, with the front office hoping for a winning record, and the fans, players and media looking for even more. And because, despite a final-week run that has improved their record to 68-92, they performed so miserably, a "step backwards" in the words of general manager Chuck LaMar, the consequences are going to be greater.

There could be drastic changes in personnel, with manager Larry Rothschild's future in question as well as that of some veteran players, at least the ones who didn't have major injuries or career-worst seasons.

But the biggest change may be dictated by the bottom line.

The decision to increase the payroll, from $37-million in 1999 to nearly $64-million on opening day, was a calculated move, a joint decision by ownership and the front office to attempt to boost sagging attendance.

LaMar said it was a departure from his original five-year plan, a "speeding up" designed to make the Rays better, and, in theory, more attractive to fans more quickly.

And it turned out to be a tremendous mistake, one that could have long-term repercussions.

While the payroll went up 70 percent, attendance actually may go down. With one game (or two, pending Monday's potential makeup) remaining, the Rays have drawn 1,521,009, about 42,000 fewer than last season's 1,562,967, which was a significant drop-off from 1998's decent 2,262,158.

"Because it didn't work this year, because we rolled the dice and it didn't work, we have major decisions to make," LaMar said. "We are at a crossroads. I still believe in the two-year plan we set forth. I still believe in the veteran players we have, and I still believe we can win and have our first winning season in year 2001.

"However, because of our lack of performance, which led to our lack of attendance, whether we have the budget, whether we have the finances to continue on this path for another year to finish out that four-year plan, is yet to be seen."

LaMar knew he eventually would be in this position, deciding when to jettison the big-name big-money veterans and turn things over to the promising prospects rising steadily -- albeit slowly -- through the farm system, a group that he said is as good as any in the game.

He just didn't expect to be there now.

"Our decision in the next month or two is: Do we continue to add to our veteran group of players and send our younger players back, or do we start to infiltrate some of these younger players and start to go in a direction of youth and the future?" LaMar said.

"I thought we would be making that decision at this time next year, or possibly July 31st next year."

The question has as much to do with how the veterans are playing as how ready the youngsters are. But finances may dictate the answer.

Managing general partner Vince Naimoli won't talk about anything with the Times, much less the team's financial situation, but it can't be attractive.

Clearly, something is going to have to be done.

"We spent a lot of money on this team to finish in last place," catcher John Flaherty said, "so obviously that's probably not going to happen again."

This season went bad for a number of reasons: some questionable personnel moves by LaMar, some devastating injuries to key players, some disappointing performances by others. The Rays lost 34 of their first 50 games and never recovered.

What next?

After shaving about $6-million by dispatching a half-dozen veterans in midseason moves, LaMar's options for further restructuring are limited.

Fred McGriff and injured Wilson Alvarez have no-trade clauses, Juan Guzman had shoulder surgery, Vinny Castilla had his worst season ever. Greg Vaughn and Gerald Williams were excellent additions. Closer Roberto Hernandez and Flaherty might be the most valuable trade commodities, but both are important to the Rays, too.

"We have more questions going into this off-season than we did the last two," Hernandez said. "They have to decide what they want to do with a lot of people."

Chief among them is Rothschild. There has been some grumbling about him in the clubhouse, though that's not unusual on losing teams. There is also a sense among some players and team executives that the injuries and inconsistent performances aren't all his fault.

LaMar hasn't said much about the situation, and while his silence can be interpreted in different ways, it is clearly a difficult issue for all parties.

"I'll make the decision at the end of the year what changes, if any, need to be made in staff and/or players," LaMar said. "Some of those decisions could come quickly and others will take time. As always, it's a time of reflection and evaluation and direction during those first two weeks after the season."

It's just that after a season like this, there's a lot more to think about.

Sure, there were silver linings, such as the opportunity to see some prospects, to add more young talent through trades. Already, there's cliche-speak about how you have to take one step back to move two forward, and how the future is as bright as ever.

But overall, LaMar admitted, he was "extremely disappointed" in the won-loss record.

"For the first time in this organization's existence, you could truly say we took a step backwards," he said.

"We don't accept it, and we're not going to accept it. We've done too many good things here and we have too many good young players on their way. We're just not going to accept taking a step backwards in this organization's development, and those questions have to be addressed this off-season."

Today's game:

Rays vs. Red Sox, 1:15, Tropicana Field, WFLA-AM 970.

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