By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 26, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- The longer the Devil Rays play, the younger they get.
Between prospects acquired in midseason trades and home-grown players nearing the majors, the Rays have one of the youngest 40-man rosters.
Tampa Bay may have deviated from its original plan last season when it spent millions to sign veteran free agents, but that never altered the franchise's focus on the farm system.
Twenty-five of the players on the 40-man roster have two years or less of major-league service. And more than half of those were players who began their pro careers with Tampa Bay.
"I think we have 15 or 16 players on the protected list who have a year's service time or less. I don't think you'll find another major-league team with that many young players," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "I think the list of prospects on the protected list looks pretty impressive."
The idea behind acquiring players like Greg Vaughn, Gerald Williams and Vinny Castilla last season was to bridge the gap for a couple of years until some of the prospects were ready to reach the majors.
The plan bombed because the veterans failed to come through, but the Rays remain on the same course. Tampa Bay hopes to remain competitive in 2001 with that same veteran core, but slowly will begin integrating the younger players into the lineup. Depending on the team's success, or lack thereof, the changes could begin as soon as midseason.
Second baseman Brent Abernathy, third baseman Aubrey Huff, right-hander Matt White and maybe even outfielder Josh Hamilton could join other 20-somethings like Ryan Rupe and Felix Martinez by July.
Outfielders Carl Crawford and Kenny Kelly and pitchers Jesus Colome and Travis Harper may only be a year behind.
All of which explains why the Rays were willing to cut veterans like Quinton McCracken and Miguel Cairo last week when it became necessary to create roster space to protect prospects like Colome, White and Harper from next week's Rule 5 draft.
"We said all along the decisions were going to get tougher when we had to protect our prospects," LaMar said. "But, really, there was no other decision to make. We have to protect our younger players. They are the future of this franchise."
NAME GAME: Reports the Rays are talking to Kansas City about outfielder Johnny Damon appear exaggerated. The clubs spoke briefly about Damon two weeks ago, but did not go into specifics. ... Tampa Bay talked to the Padres last month about Bret Boone, but those discussions were halted when San Diego declined to exercise a $4-million option on the second baseman. Now that Boone is a free agent, Tampa Bay's interest has waned because his price likely will go up and he will seek a multiyear deal.
JUST WONDERING: How do you suppose Ken Griffey and Barry Larkin are feeling this off-season? The Reds convinced both to accept smaller contracts to remain in Cincinnati and, months later, began a major salary dump. Between trades and waivers, the Reds have unloaded two starting pitchers, a starting catcher, a utility infielder who hit .334 with 12 homers last year, and an outfielder. In return, they have gotten eight minor-leaguers.
SAVING GRACE: After 13 seasons in Chicago, Mark Grace appears headed out of town. Grace, 36, expressed disappointment in Cubs president/general manager Andy McPhail, who apparently has not pursued the career .308 hitter. "Andy McPhail is making this an easy decision for me ... by not showing any interest at all. He's made it crystal clear he doesn't want me around anymore. That takes a lot of the heartache out of it," Grace told the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago. MAC IS BACK: Mark McGwire, who fought the idea of surgery all summer, finally submitted to the procedure after doctors could not guarantee that a damaged tendon in his right knee would heal with just rehabilitation. McGwire told Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty his knee feels great less than a month after surgery.
-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.
Rays' 40-man roster has 16 players with less than one year of service time in the majors and more than half the roster has two years or less: