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Rays scour Earth for a good lefty

At least 10 left-handers will compete for one or two limited yet crucial bullpen roles.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 27, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Chatting with fans while signing autographs, Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar gently placed a baseball in a stroller near a toddler's right hand.

When he realized what he had done, LaMar retrieved the ball -- and set it down next to the child's left hand.

Apparently, it's never too early to scout a left-hander.

LaMar should know. The Devil Rays suffered some serious angst looking for a left-handed reliever in April and appear determined not to go through the process again.

Tampa Bay invited no less than 10 left-handed relievers to spring training for perhaps two available jobs, maybe one.

"There are more around here than I've ever seen," lefty applicant Erik Plantenberg said. "I guess they figure the more they bring in, the better chance of finding one they like."

The Devil Rays are not alone in this mission. How else do you explain a Tony Fossas? At 40 years old last season, he had an ERA of 8.74 in Seattle and was released. He hooked on with the Cubs, where he posted a 9.00 ERA and was released. Yet the left-hander was grabbed by the Rangers and ended up in the post-season.

"Left-handed pitching has become one of the toughest, if not the toughest, commodities to find in major-league baseball," LaMar said. "Whether it be a quality starter or a left-hander out of the bullpen to get left-handed hitters out. It's something every team needs and every championship team seems to find."

LaMar said the Rays targeted some left-handed setup men in the free-agent market, but they quickly realized the law of supply and demand had raised the price beyond their means.

So the next best alternative was to bring in a wide assortment of contenders with the hope that one or two would shine.

The Rays searched everywhere. They have lefties coming back from injuries (Tim Davis and Steve Cooke), they have veterans looking for a new opportunity (Norm Charlton, Larry Casian, Alan Newman, Plantenberg), they have young players looking for a break (Mike Duvall, Ramon Tatis), they have a Mexican League star (Daniel Garibay) and they have one incumbent (Scott Aldred).

"People say if you're left-handed and can breathe, someone will let you pitch," Casian said. "But it's not that easy. You still have to be able to get people out. Plain and simple, the numbers are what keep you in the big leagues."

Being left-handed does not assure you of a roster spot -- but it might mean someone will offer you a chance.

For the most part, the left-handed reliever is a specialist, a pitcher usually called on to get out one or two left-handed batters late in a game.

Aldred may be the perfect example of a left-hander finding his niche in that role. Having struggled as a starter for a few seasons, Aldred came to Tampa Bay as a non-roster invitee last season. When Tatis failed to get the job done early in 1998, Aldred was called up from Triple-A Durham.

The 30-year-old appeared in 48 games, yet pitched only 31 innings. His job was usually over after a left-handed batter or two. Aldred set a major-league record for appearances without a win, loss or save.

He also was the only left-hander the Rays carried in the bullpen last season. Tampa Bay was able to get away with just one because right-hander Jim Mecir's screwball is effective against left-handed hitters.

"Having two or three left-handers gives a manager more options when it gets late in the game," pitching coach Rick Williams said. "The more you have, you can start matching them up in the sixth or seventh inning before you get to your closer. It can shorten a game for a manager, which is a pretty good weapon."

Rays manager Larry Rothschild has not decided whether to go with one or two left-handers this season. Barring a trade or injury, four of his six bullpen spots are accounted for by right-handers Mecir, Roberto Hernandez, Albie Lopez and Esteban Yan.

That leaves two available jobs at the most. Or maybe just one, since one spot requires a long reliever.

"You go to any camp and you'll see a dozen lefties. That's just the way it is," Aldred said. "I don't think there's any great secret behind it, you just get what you can get. It just gets real competitive. There's a lot of people and only a few spots."

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