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Ranking the Rays

    With the exhibition season starting, Rays officials say few jobs are secure and many decisions remain to be made. Several players are competing at numerous positions, which means everything could not be clear until the end of the spring . Here is a position-by-position look at the situation.

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 1999


CATCHERS

Flaherty
SPRING FLING: John Flaherty had a bad 1998. So did Mike DiFelice. And Joe Oliver, for that matter. Nevertheless, the starter and backup will be culled from this group. Flaherty was brought back with a one-year contract and has worked extremely hard to redeem himself after hitting .207 while splitting time almost equally with DiFelice. The opportunity will be there for Flaherty to win the starting job outright, and that just may be the best scenario. DiFelice could then continue his apprenticeship, trying to develop his offensive game to match his strong defense. And if Oliver, who is a good veteran influence, proves he still can play, the Rays might be tempted to explore a trade for DiFelice.

POSSIBLE SURPRISE: Julio Mosquera, a 27-year-old claimed off waivers from Toronto last September, is considered a good “catch-and-throw” guy who needs to prove he can hit consistently at a higher than Double A.

INFIELDERS

First base

McGriff
SPRING FLING: For what the Rays hope will be for better than for worse, the job again belongs to Fred McGriff, who hit a career-low 19 homers in 1998. McGriff didn’t seem to make the necessary adjustments last season, but he has added incentive —this is the last season of his four-year, $20-million contract. When McGriff isn’t out there, Paul Sorrento would like to be. Sorrento struggled immensely last season as the DH, but he is likely to be supplanted there by Jose Canseco. There won’t be a lot of playing time to spare, but Wade Boggs could make it to this side of the diamond, too. Dave Martinez also can fill in.

POSSIBLE SURPRISE: In what might be a move more for the future, Bubba Trammell will get some time at first this spring. Trammell isn’t the smoothest outfielder, and with Canseco aboard, first base might be a logical alternative.

Second base

Cairo
SPRING FLING: Miguel Cairo was the biggest question going into spring training last year, and he provided all the answers with a strong rookie season — hitting .268 with five homers and 46 RBI, stealing 19 bases and playing usually strong defense. But he led the team with 16 errors and went through stretches of inconsistency in the field and at the plate. The job is again Cairo’s to lose. Aaron Ledesma hasn’t played that much second, but the super utility man could push Cairo for playing time, and even the starting role, especially if he maintains his career .324 batting average. Bobby Smith can also play here if needed.

POSSIBLE SURPRISE: The Rays say they brought 37-year-old Julio Franco to camp with the idea that he’ll join their Mexico City affiliate. But if the former AL batting champ has an extraordinary spring, this is the job he could take.

Shortstop

Stocker
Ledesma
SPRING FLING: A broken hand that ended Kevin Stocker’s dismal 1998 season a month early allowed the Rays to learn some things. For one, they found out Ledesma can play shortstop on an everyday basis. For another, they reconfirmed their opinion that Stocker can play it better.

The Rays aren’t expecting much offense from Stocker, but they need more than the .208 average he provided last season. Even through his struggles, Stocker played good defense, and the Rays see him as the key to the infield alignment.

POSSIBLE SURPRISE: David Lamb was taken from Baltimore in the Rule 5 draft, which means the Rays must either keep him on the big-league roster all season or offer him back to the O’s. An impressive spring could at least make that decision more interesting.

Third base

Boggs
Smith
SPRING FLING: One of the more interesting situations this season will be the division of playing time at third. For second-year man Smith, this is a key season as far as establishing himself as a cornerstone player around whom the Rays can build for the future. For Boggs it will merely be the year in which he caps his stellar career by recording the final 78 hits needed for 3,000. Smith reported to camp in excellent shape and could win the starting job with a strong spring. But Boggs plays hard and doesn’t back down from a challenge, and he knows his best opportunity for at-bats will come when playing third. Most likely they’ll end up splitting the job again.

POSSIBLE SURPRISE: Scott McClain did everything asked of him at Triple A. He hit .299 with 34 homers and 109 RBI, and was named the International League’s best defensive third baseman. Short of an injury, it’s hard to see him getting much chance, but at least he can pose a challenge.

In reserve

McClain
SPRING FLING: The Rays will keep three backup infielders, and one will be Sorrento, who can only play first. Another will be the person who isn’t starting at third each game, either Boggs (who can play first and third) or Smith (who can play short and second). That puts an extreme premium on the abilities of Ledesma, who handled the utility role with aplomb last season. If Ledesma were to land a starting job (through injury, trade or achievement), that could open a spot for Lamb, if he can hit; or Scott McClain, who hit 34 homers at Triple A, if he can play the middle infield positions; or even Franco, the 37-year-old former All-Star, if he can still play.

PITCHERS

Starters

Arrojo
SPRING FLING: The first three spots in the rotation are set with Wilson Alvarez, Rolando Arrojo and Tony Saunders, though each needs to show he has put 1998 health concerns behind. After that, the plot — and the competition — thickens. At one point, manager Larry Rothschild said Julio Santana, who showed flashes of brilliance last season, had a leg up for either the No. 4 or 5 spot. More recently, he endorsed lefty Terrell Wade, who made a September return to the majors after surgery. Also in the mix are Jason Johnson, Bryan Rekar and — when he gets healthy — Rick Gorecki, and that’s just the returning players. Among the non-roster invitees, Bobby Witt, a 16-game winner in 1996, and Roger Bailey, who had some success in Colorado before a spring 1998 car accident, are the most intriguing possibilities. Other contenders include Steve Ontiveros, Mark Hutton and lefty Steve Cooke.

POSSIBLE SURPRISE: Daniel Garibay is easy to overlook — he’s 5 feet 9, keeps to himself and doesn’t speak English. But he is young (26), left-handed and has compiled a 45-26 record, and 4.39 ERA, in six seasons in the Mexican League.

Relievers

Hernandez
SPRING FLING: The bullpen was one of the team strengths, and all key members are back. Closer Roberto Hernandez claims to have fixed the mechanical flaw that led to six losses, nine blown saves and a 4.04 ERA. Right-handers Albie Lopez, Jim Mecir and Esteban Yan seem certain of setup/middle relief jobs, though the depth makes a trade tempting.

There might be room for one more righty as more of a swing man, and it could be Santana if he doesn’t win a starting job. Otherwise, incumbent Rick White will battle Bobby Munoz, Dave Eiland and Eddie Gaillard. There has been talk of keeping two lefties, which would eliminate one of the righty slots. Scott Aldred was effective last season (3.73 ERA over 48 appearances without a decision), but the Rays have beefed up the competition.

If he still has it, Norm Charlton, 36, tops the list. Mike Duvall, who made his big-league debut last September, is another strong contender. Other possibilities include Larry Casian, Steve Cooke, Tim Davis, Alan Newman and Ramon Tatis.

POSSIBLE SURPRISE: Eiland won one game in the majors in the past seven seasons but has shown he knows how to pitch and get batters out (13 wins, 2.99 ERA at Triple A). The 32-year-old could be in the bullpen mix, or even battle for a rotation spot.

OUTFIELD

Centerfield

Winn
SPRING FLING: Outfield is the Rays’ most complex situation. There are eight players competing for five or six spots, at least a half-dozen scenarios to consider and slight uncertainty about Quinton McCracken’s knee injury. The key decision, however, will be in centerfield, and it really will be very simple to make. If the Rays decide Randy Winn is ready to play every day, he will be the starter and McCracken will be shifted to left. If Winn isn’t ready, he’ll go back to Triple A (where he can play every day) and McCracken will start. With McCracken likely sidelined until late March and the Rays fairly comfortable with what he can do, the job is Winn’s to win or lose, and it could be GM Chuck LaMar’s and manager Larry Rothschild’s most significant decision of the spring. Martinez and Mike Kelly are potentially strong backups.

POSSIBLE SURPRISE: Carlos Mendoza opened some eyes last spring before getting hurt and could garner further attention if he keeps swinging a hot bat.

Leftfield

McCracken
SPRING FLING: This is where it starts to get complicated. If Winn is in center, then McCracken, if healthy, will be in left. That’s how the two finished the 1998 season and could well be how they start this year. That gives the Rays two speedy and strong defensive players patrolling the even-larger Tropicana Field turf. But if McCracken is in center, a platoon — or even a three-way deal — is likely in left. Trammell, who hits right-handed, would probably split the position with Sorrento, who hits left-handed. But Canseco, who hits righthanded, says he wants to play outfield, too, and the Rays may have to decide who is the better — or least worst — defensive player between Canseco and Sorrento.

POSSIBLE SURPRISE: Billy Ashley has produced monster home run and RBI numbers in the minors, and he could join the outfield party with a powerful spring.

Rightfield

Butler
SPRING FLING: If leftfield sounded complicated, then figuring out rightfield is akin to a deciphering a statistical abstract. Martinez missed the second half of last season with a thigh injury but returns as what amounts to the incumbent. How far that gets him remains to be seen. The Rays project great things for Rich Butler, and he can get a start on accomplishing them by winning the starting job outright. But, like Winn, if he’s not the starter, he’s likely headed back to Triple A. With McCracken in center, Martinez, a lefty, and Kelly would probably split this position. If Winn is in center and McCracken in left, Martinez would be joined by Sorrento, Trammell and Canseco. A trade would clear up this situation, and Martinez could be commodity to a contending team once he shows he’s healthy.

POSSIBLE SURPRISE: Luke Wilcox showed signs of developing into a power hitter last season, hitting 17 homers in 88 games at Double-A Orlando, and he could slug his way into the picture.

In reserve

Trammell
SPRING FLING: Once the Rays sort out center, left and right, they could be left with some more difficult choices. Figuring McCracken, Canseco, Martinez and Sorrento are on the team, there is room for two more outfielders. Trammell did well enough last year that he’d probably have to play his way off the squad. The final spot could belong to Winn or Butler if either wins a starting job. If not, the spot would probably belong to Kelly, who is an excellent pinch-runner and quietly had a solid 1998. If none of that materializes, a spot could open for someone such as Ashley, Mendoza or Terrell Lowery.

Designated hitter

Canseco
SPRING FLING: The Rays signed Canseco to add some punch to their lineup, and they expect him to do that mostly as the DH. One problem — he hit .219 with 25 homers in 319 at-bats as DH; .258 with 21 homers in 264 at-bats otherwise. He’ll probably get some playing time in the outfield and an occasional day off to keep his back strong. When that happens, Sorrento, who struggled adjusting to the DH role, can step in. Trammell and Boggs could also pick up some at-bats here.

-- Rays position-by-position capsules compiled by Marc Topkin.

 

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