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Stingless Rays aim for 2002

Special to

August 3

It has been one of those years when nothing has gone right for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Not that some of the sluggos that were brought in to appeal to the WWF wing of the Tampa Bay baseball audience were Chuck LaMar's idea of a baseball team. Bringing in bashers like Greg Vaughn and Vinny Castilla to join Jose Canseco and Fred McGriff was an attempt to broaden interest in a region where baseball is an afterthought. It didn't work.

Vinny Castilla
Vinny Castilla is off to yet another bad start for the Devil Rays this season.

"No one could have survived losing the first four starters in the rotation," says one opposing general manager. But Wilson Alvarez and Juan Guzman blew out, Ryan Rupe and Dan Wheeler went backwards in their development and returned to the minor leagues and Steve Trachsel, "who we signed to be our No. 5 starter and eat up 200 innings became our No. 1," says LaMar. Then Castilla broke down and Jose Canseco, as usual, didn't play much. Kevin Stocker aged and Miguel Cairo slipped, so the defense couldn't help what became a patchwork starting staff.

But when the trading deadline passed and the Devil Rays turned towards the final third of the season, lo and behold, there was light at the end of the tunnel. They stood a chance to pass the Orioles. Through August 1, they were 29-26 over their past 55 games. Albie Lopez has found himself in the starting rotation, Bobby Smith and Steve Cox are developing, and they had hard-hitting third baseman Aubrey Huff and right-handed pitcher Travis Harper coming up out of the minors.

Just as important, LaMar made three deadline deals that brought in more talent. He shipped middle reliever Rick White and designated hitter Bubba Trammell to the Mets to get their future leadoff hitter in left fielder Jason Tyner and pitcher Paul Wilson. With Trachsel, LaMar was able to get his future No. 2 hitter in second baseman Brent Abernathy from the Blue Jays. For Jim Mecir -- who LaMar calls "the best eighth-inning pitcher in the game" -- he got Jesus Colome from Oakland, a fireballer who has thrown 100 mph and is a future closer or starter.

"We've still got a long way to go here," says LaMar, "but I still believe we could have been .500 had our starting pitchers been healthy and that we can build past that next season. But what's really important is that at the deadline next season we'll have a lot of players in their final years of contracts and we can really build for the future as we develop what we now have." Indeed, Roberto Hernandez, McGriff, Castilla and Guzman are among those he could be marketing, presuming they're all healthy and playing for new contracts.

Compared to Arizona, which has gutted its system trying to win this season with a veteran team, Tampa Bay's 2002 vision is extremely encouraging. By then, Rupe, Wheeler, Harper, Matt White, Bobby Seay, Colome and perhaps Wilson -- if he keeps coming back from his arm injuries -- should be set in the majors. The Rays should have Huff or Damian Rolls at third, Abernathy at second, Cox or Huff at first, Tyner leading off with Gerald Williams in center.

And by then, the big boys should be arriving. Outfielders Carl Crawford (.312, 49 steals) and Josh Hamilton (.301, 13 home runs) have shown so much skill and maturity in the South Atlantic League that they may finish 2000 in Double-A, start 2001 there and perhaps be at the big-league door sometime in 2002. Kenny Kelly, another outfielder, is at Double-A and coming along as well. And there are many who believe the Mets' duo of Alex Escobar and Brian Cole is the only set of outfield prospects in the class of Crawford and Hamilton.

To anyone who knows LaMar and his core beliefs in athletic talent and scouting, the anticipated development of the franchise isn't a surprise. There are a lot of questions about the franchise itself, but that's not the primary concern of the baseball side of the operation. For all their problems this April and May, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are right about where they should have realistically dreamed of being in their third season -- about two years from bursting out of the tunnel into the light.

What if ...
Some interesting deals that came close to getting made at the deadline:

  • Kevin Millwood and shortstop Mark DeRosa from the Braves to the Padres for RHP Matt Clement, IF Damian Jackson and OF Al Martin, before B.J. Surhoff became available. The Braves are still looking for another infielder who can play second and short, and have talked to the A's about the talented Jorge Velandia.

  • John Halama, Jeff Heaverlo and another pitching prospect from Seattle to Detroit for Juan Gonzalez. Phil Garner, who has put his own neck on the line in attempting to get into the wild-card race, talked everyone out of dealing Gonzalez.

  • Toronto offered Junior Cruz, Chris Carpenter and a top prospect to Cleveland for Manny Ramirez, and we are told that the Indians would have done the deal had the Jays substituted Shannon Stewart for Cruz. Of course, Stewart is close to the best player in the American League at the most difficult offensive position -- leadoff hitter. There is no way Toronto could sign Ramirez before he enters the market.

    Bonus baby
    There were some eyes opened after the White Sox gave Stanford outfielder -- and quarterback -- Joe Borchard the biggest bonus of any drafted player ever, $5.3 million. "This puts a dent in the commissioner's office attempts to control costs," says one agent. "We checked with the NFL people, and Borchard wasn't even rated to be a seventh-round NFL pick. So what does this do to Drew Henson with the Reds if he has a big year and is a top half of the first round NFL draft guy?"

    Borchard's $5.3 million eclipses the mark of $3.96 million the Devil Rays paid Hamilton in 1999. Corey Patterson ($3.7 million from the Cubs) and Josh Beckett ($3.625 million from the Marlins) own the next-highest signing bonuses.

    "In some ways, this was like Jerry Reinsdorf signing Albert Belle before the new Basic Agreement was signed," says one GM. "It's wild." It likely assures that Team USA juniors like Cal third baseman Xavier Nady won't get signed, and may end up playing in some independent league.

    Check these guys out
    Some players who are better than you may have realized:

  • Pirates LHP Jimmy Anderson. This guy is Mike Hampton II. His groundball/flyball ratio is 3.3-to-1; for perspective, Greg Maddux and Hampton are 1-2 among ERA qualifiers, at 2.7-to-1 and 2.2-to-1, respectively. Hitters are slugging only .370 off him -- a number bettered only by Hampton, Maddux, Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson and Tom Glavine among NL starters. Now, do the Pirates understand what they have?

  • Oakland RHP Gil Heredia. The only right-handers in the AL with more wins than his 26 the last two seasons are Pedro Martinez and Aaron Sele. Heredia is a terrific contrast to the three high-ceiling kids, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. If you're a music freak and the name Zito sounds familiar, his father Joe was a songwriter for Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole and had works performed by the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Boston bullpen. The Red Sox staff leads the AL in ERA, yet until Pedro Martinez threw a complete game in Seattle on Aug. 2, their starters had thrown the fewest innings -- and their relievers the most -- of any team in the majors. In front of Derek Lowe, Hipolito Pichardo is throwing 95 mph and hitters are slugging .236 against him as a reliever, while Rich Garces and Rheal Cormier have been extraordinary. Remember, this is a staff that didn't have an 11-game winner other than Pedro last season and still led the league in ERA.

    News and notes

  • The one prospect the Cardinals regretted dealing as GM Walt Jocketty acquired Carlos Hernandez, Mike Timlin, Jason Christiansen and Will Clark at the deadline was outfielder Ben Johnson, whom the Padres held out for in the Hernandez deal. Shortstop Jack Wilson, traded to Pittsburgh for Christiansen, is a solid prospect, a Mike Bordick type

  • The Rays got Rolls in the Rule 5 draft from the Dodgers because he'd had surgery, and they've rehabbed him all season. Their other Rule 5 pick, RHP Chris Reitsma, had to be sent back to Boston, but the Canadian who suffered a broken arm two years ago has come back, is 6-1 in the Eastern League and now may be Boston's best pitching prospect. Colorado had held out for him in the Rolando Arrojo deal.

  • Chipper Jones is very close to a multi-year extension.

  • Some lowlifes have lampooned Surhoff's tearful departure from Baltimore, but anyone who knows Surhoff knows his sincerity about everything, as well as his distaste for media fools. When he was leaving the Brewers as a free agent to sign with the Orioles, Surhoff refused to complete the deal until he'd driven to County Stadium, sat down across a desk from Bud Selig, looked him in the eye and told him he was leaving. "That was very hard for me, because it was the team for whom I'd played for nine years," says Surhoff, who had turned down deals to the Mets and Mariners -- per his partial no-trade contract -- but couldn't veto a deal to the Braves, or Padres, where the O's also tried to deal him.

  • The Padres went to the end trying to get Jason Kendall for Clement and Ben Davis because they believe he'd sign with them to be home in California.

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  • Gammons: 2000 column archive
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