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Devil Rays add pitcher Witt

Former Tampa Jesuit star Marc Valdes reaches terms. Ben McDonald and Steve Cooke are expected to sign this week.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Getting armed for their second season, the Devil Rays have come to terms with free agent pitchers Bobby Witt and Marc Valdes and are expected to announce the signings of Ben McDonald and Steve Cooke this week.

Witt, who turns 35 in May, has been one of the more durable pitchers of the past decade, averaging 27 starts a season since 1986.

The right-hander was once a prized prospect with the Rangers as the No. 3 pick in the 1985 draft, reaching Texas after only 11 games in the minors. While he has struggled with control, Witt has had 16- and 17-win seasons in the 1990s.

He was on the Marlins staff in 1995, when Rays manager Larry Rothschild was the pitching coach.

"This is an opportunity for Bobby to pitch for Larry," Witt's agent Alan Nero said. "He feels Larry helped him a great deal at Florida and believes he will flourish again with him."

Witt had a 3.90 ERA in 19 starts with Rothschild before being traded back to Texas. His ERA since is 5.94. Witt was 7-9 with a 6.56 ERA with Texas and St. Louis last season.

Valdes, a 27-year-old right-hander, also is familiar with Rothschild from their days with the Marlins. A former star at Tampa's Jesuit High and the University of Florida, Valdes was released by the Expos after last season. He had elbow surgery in July and is not expected to be ready to pitch until midseason.

While not speaking specifically about Witt or Valdes, Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said the club has been pursuing low-risk, low-salaried pitchers to invite to spring training.

"We don't yet have a system of players in place where we can just take a young kid off the Triple-A roster. We're still a couple of years away from our farm system producing the type of players we need to remain as competitive as we'd like to be," LaMar said. "We're trying to fill in with these pitchers who have very little guaranteed money in their contracts.

"At one time or another, they've had success in the major leagues but are coming off a season where they've been out for one reason or another, in most cases because of injuries. If we hit right on one of them, it creates competition for the fourth and fifth jobs in the starting rotation."

McDonald and Cooke fit that description.

Like Witt, McDonald was a highly touted prospect when he reached the majors. The No. 1 pick in the 1989 draft, McDonald went 78-70 for the Orioles and Brewers before being shelved by a shoulder injury in 1997. The right-hander missed the 1998 season after rotator cuff surgery. LaMar said the Rays have had McDonald, 31, thoroughly examined and are confident his shoulder is sound.

"He's an interesting sort of guy. He was highly thought of for a number of years and then sort of vanished," LaMar said. "You don't find too many guys who were consistent 12- or 13-game winners just hanging around out there.

"It's just a matter of getting the (contract) specifics down, but hopefully we can get it done."

Cooke is coming back from his second career-threatening injury.

The left-hander was in Pittsburgh's rotation in 1993-94 before being sidelined most of two seasons with a elbow injury. He bounced back in 1997 to go 9-15 with the Pirates before being released and signed by the Reds.

Cooke, 29, began the 1998 season in the Reds rotation and got their first win of the season but went on the disabled list with a sore elbow and did not return.

The Reds were due to pay him $1.25-million for 1999 but opted to buy out his contract for $425,000.

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