By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Devil Rays are nearing a moment when the franchise's future must run headfirst into its past.
By midnight Monday, the Rays must set their 40-man roster for the winter. The roster currently holds 39, but with complications.
Minor-league players with a certain amount of service time must be added to the 40-man roster or be subject to selection by any major-league team in next month's Rule 5 draft. That means the Rays must make room on their roster to protect top prospects such as Brent Abernathy, Jesus Colome, Bobby Seay, Jason Standridge and Matt White.
That likely means the Rays will say goodbye to a player such as Quinton McCracken.
"I'm sure it could go either way," McCracken said. "I wouldn't be surprised if that's what they decided."
McCracken was Tampa Bay's second pick in the expansion draft and the team's 1998 Most Valuable Player, but his prolonged comeback from knee surgery last year and his contract situation make him something of a liability on the roster.
McCracken, 30, earned a base salary of $1.85-million in 2000, despite spending the bulk of the season in the minors because the Rays thought he had not fully recovered from his 1999 knee injury. Under the labor agreement, McCracken's contract cannot be cut more than 20 percent for 2001, which would mean a minimum salary in the $1.5-million range.
Considering he hit .260 with two home runs in 334 minor-league at-bats and .129 in 31 major-league at-bats last season, that salary would be steep. The Rays also are set with Gerald Williams in centerfield and Greg Vaughn in left. McCracken is not a rightfielder, so he would be a role player at best.
McCracken knew his future in Tampa Bay was limited and requested a trade during the summer. The Rays could oblige him by designating him for assignment Monday, which would give the team 10 days to trade or release him.
"The most important thing to me is being fully healthy again and getting back to being the productive player I was my first year there," McCracken said. "I wouldn't mind if Tampa gives me that chance. If not, I'll go to some other organization and we'll both move forward. That's all I asked from them halfway through the season. Just a chance to move forward."
If it comes to that, it would not be the most pleasant parting for a player who performed as well, and was as gracious and open-hearted, as anyone on the inaugural Rays team.
But if the Rays are going to move forward, they occasionally must be willing to turn their backs on the past.
OTHERS ON THE BRINK: McCracken may not be the only fan favorite in danger of losing his spot on the 40-man roster. Jim Morris, the high school teacher turned major-leaguer, is another candidate. Depending on how many roster spots the Rays need to create, Jeff Sparks and Ozzie Timmons also are possibilities.
WINTER WONDERLAND: Teams are not usually enthusiastic to see their high-priced players in winter ball because of the potential for injury or burnout (Wilson Alvarez comes to mind). The Rays, however, seem happy third baseman Vinny Castilla is playing this winter after an injury-plagued season.
"Last year was the first year he didn't play winter ball," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "He's going back to his old regime and work ethic."
SHORT WINTER: On the other hand, Albie Lopez had never played winter ball in his career until getting an invitation to tour Japan with an All-Star team this month. Lopez pitched nine shutout innings in three relief appearances and came away impressed with Japanese hitters.
"The hitters really don't like to strike out. It's frowned upon there," Lopez said. "You get two strikes on them and they don't chase balls out of the strike zone. They're not looking to hit home runs with two strikes."
Lopez, in line for a considerable raise from his $800,000 salary because he is arbitration eligible, said the Rays have not talked to him about a possible long-term deal.
"They'll let me know how important I am in their plans," Lopez said. "They have to take care of other things first, I guess."
TOBACCO-STAINED CARPET FOR SALE: Field Turf got such glowing reviews from visiting teams that the Rays have received permission from Major League Baseball to sell their old artificial turf. The Rays had stored the carpet nearby in case there were problems with Field Turf.
ZIMMER ROAST: Don Zimmer, the Yankees bench coach and long-time Treasure Island resident, was honored and roasted at the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in Little Falls, N.J., last week. Tommy Lasorda, Joe and Frank Torre, Ralph Branca, Johnny Podres and Jim Leyland were among the speakers. Proceeds from the evening went to Berra's educational programs and Zimmer's charity, All Children's Hospital.
- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.