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Rays building team of the aged

Savvy moves? The Rays say they can't lose by adding low-risk, low-price veterans.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- A couple are chasing the past, and others are trying to stay a step ahead of the inevitable. Some are returning from injuries, and a few are just trying to get back in shape.

Scattered throughout the Devil Rays clubhouse are players whose history precedes -- and predates -- them. There's 36-year-old former closer Norm Charlton, who has one save since July 1997. One-time 17-game winner Bobby Witt, 34, who has had one winning season in the past five. Catcher Joe Oliver, 33, whose weight (230) exceeded his batting average (.225) last season. Former All-Star pitcher Steve Ontiveros, 37, who hasn't pitched in the majors since 1995. And previous ace Ben McDonald, 31, who has been hurt since July 1997.

Of 18 non-roster players new to the organization, nine are older than 30. Three others are coming off major injuries.

To the cynic, it doesn't seem to make any sense. If this is supposed to be a team building with young players toward a championship future, why clutter the path with veterans making a final pitch? All that's missing is the Devil Rays mascot in the Statue of Liberty pose -- Bring us your old . . . your tired . . . your injured.

But to team officials, the scene is just right. They wanted to create competition for young players and add depth that the farm system isn't ready to produce. They see it as a low-risk exercise at a low cost because the veterans were signed to minor-league contracts with small base salaries and incentive bonuses tied to performance. The Rays say it's a complement to their plan to build with youth more so than a contradiction. And if the veterans can't make it, nothing is lost. If one or two do, the Rays have the option to buy a little more time for prospects to develop. Plus, they gain some veteran savvy in the process.

"If any of these guys makes it, you just bought a used car from some old lady who kept it in the garage and only drove it 15,000 miles," Charlton said. "You got a hell of a deal. It could make your GM look like a genius."

Rays general manager Chuck LaMar didn't make the moves for the accolades, but after a winter in which he wasn't able to do much to alter a team that lost 99 games, he probably wouldn't mind the praise.

"I think it's a good fit all the way around," LaMar said. "Several of the veteran players we brought in must re-establish themselves as major leaguers or their careers will be over. We think some of them will, and that will give us tremendous flexibility. We can decide to go with the veteran players if we so choose. Or if our young players are ready, we can go the younger player route and really not be out much, if anything, financially. I think it's solid business."

Manager Larry Rothschild is more concerned whether it's good baseball, and he likes the odds. "I don't expect it to work out every case -- it won't," he said. "But it's possible a couple guys are going to end up helping us a little bit."

With only three spots set in the rotation, the Rays are looking for two starters. While Terrell Wade, Julio Santana and Jason Johnson head the list of young returning candidates, the Rays also can consider Witt and Ontiveros, along with Steve Cooke and Roger Bailey, who are recovering from injuries. Eventually, McDonald and Marc Valdes should join the mix.

Charlton could provide left-handed relief help, as may 33-year-old Larry Casian or Tim Davis, who is coming back from surgery. And while the Rays were pleased with their catchers, a healthy Oliver could provide an interesting alternative.

What the Rays like most are the options.

They rushed some players to the majors last season, and stuck with others longer than they would have liked. Having some of these veterans around would allow them to use only the players who are truly ready. And it just might help them win some more games this season as well.

"One of our most important evaluating tasks in 1999 is determining which young players have a chance to be, and are solidifying themselves as, quality major leaguers," LaMar said. "Just because they are young doesn't give them a license for us to stay with them."

Those who are ready, the Rays say, still will get their chance. "I don't think we'll let those guys stand in way of a young player that's ready to play in the major leagues," Rothschild said.

But for those who aren't? "If we make the decision in certain cases that a young player is either not ready to perform at the level expected or, in our opinion, may never perform at that level, we need players who have the experience and capability of improving our organization," LaMar said.

If part of the plan was to motivate the young players, the message was received. "This makes me work harder," said Johnson, a 25-year-old who went 2-5 in 13 starts last season. "I went to the Arizona Fall League and did well (7-1), but then I saw we signed a lot of guys and it got me thinking, "That was just the fall league.' Now I really have to work hard. I see it as a lot more competition, and I like it."

Handled properly, this plan should work well. Players aren't paid during spring training, so the financial risk is minimal, and just the threat of competition can be a motivating factor.

"It's the perfect risk for them," Charlton said. "If they had a game like this in Vegas, I'd go play it every day."

But it's also a good opportunity for the players. They have a chance to return to their glory days, and regain at least some of their financial stature.

McDonald, for example, reportedly signed for $200,000. But he could earn another $2-million in bonuses. And, if he's good enough that the Rays decide to exercise their option for 2000, he would make $5.5-million. "It's pretty fair for both sides," McDonald said.

So for the next couple of weeks, it's a matter of seeing who can do what, and for how long. So what if there are a few sore muscles and a line at the trainer's table along the way?

"If there's something we can do to get these guys back to where they once were in their careers," Rothschild said, "that's good for them and it's good for us."

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