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Canseco has power to the third degree


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 1999

ST. PETERSBURG -- Filling the No.3 hole in a lineup is a priority for every team in baseball. Particularly in Tampa Bay, where that spot literally was a hole in 1998.

The Devil Rays had no hitter who fit the classic profile of a No. 3 hitter -- a player who can blend power, speed and average, not to mention the ability to come through in the clutch.

That's where Jose Canseco fits in. Or should we say, hits in. Canseco, who blasted two home runs Monday at Al Lang Field, could provide the Rays with more than just big numbers.

"If Jose ends up being our three-hole hitter, he not only gives us the power needed, but I think everybody on the club knows he's capable of getting that big hit and driving in that big run when the occasion presents itself," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "I think we'll be a better offensive club because of that."

Canseco is not a perfect No. 3 hitter, though. He strikes out too much. He has not hit for a high average recently (the career .266 hitter hit .235 and .237 in 1997 and '98). Yet, he can lend stability to a spot that was shaky in 1998.

When it came to searching for a No. 3 hitter last season, the Rays didn't quite go from A to Z, but they came close.

They went from (Wade) Boggs to (Jerome) Walton with eight others in between. They used three rookies. They went lefty, righty and even tried a switch-hitter. More than half the position players got a shot at the No. 3 spot.

Some of the candidates did better than others, but none was particularly suited for the role.

Boggs hit for a high average and kept his number of strikeouts down, but he does not have the preferred power and did not hit well with runners in scoring position. Bobby Smith performed well at No. 3 for a rookie, but he also does not have a consistent power stroke and had a high strikeout total (110 in 370 at-bats).

Just as important, none of Tampa Bay's hitters had that intangible presence.

"Jose takes some swings that pitchers have to take note of," manager Larry Rothschild said. "He can get a pitcher in a little more defensive mode."

Canseco actually may be better suited as a No. 4 hitter, but has hit in both spots with success. He said he does not have a preference and does not change his approach whether hitting No. 3 or 4.

"They're going to pitch me the same no matter where I'm hitting. Even with (Mark) McGwire hitting behind me, I could see 3-1 curves," Canseco said. "I go with the same approach every time. I'm up there to drive the ball."

The other spots in the order could benefit from Canseco's presence. Putting him at No. 3 shifts other hitters deeper in the lineup, theoretically making the Rays stronger. The Nos. 1 and 2 hitters also could see more strikes with Canseco and Fred McGriff looming behind them.

"No question they'll get better pitches to hit. Theoretically, they should," said Boggs, who could go back to his more natural No. 2 spot. "They don't want to pitch around guys and be in a position where someone is on first and second when Jose comes up. They'll more or less challenge the 1-2 guys and say, "Hey, hit your way on,' and after that take their chances."

Canseco spent the majority of 1998 in the No. 3 spot for the Blue Jays and hit 38 of his 46 home runs there. Only McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr. hit more home runs from that spot.

Canseco's average and league-leading 159 strikeouts are a concern from such an important spot in the lineup, but the Rays are willing to exchange those drawbacks for production.

"There's a history of guys who struck out a hair more than normal but did offensive damage," hitting coach Leon Roberts said. "Yeah, (Canseco) can maybe cut out his strikeouts by 10 or 15 percent, but you don't want to cut those down at the expense of him feeling for the ball and playing pitter patter.

"He struck out 159 times last year, but he knocked in 107 runs. So he was doing a lot of things right."

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