By John Donovan, SI.com
Player I Saw Whom I Really Liked
I love watching Roberto Alomar take infield. I'd pay to see it. Not a lot, but a few bucks, anyway. In the second inning of Tampa Bay's home exhibition opener against the Reds on Thursday, the Rays' new second baseman showed how all that work pays off. Cincinnati first baseman Jacob Cruz hit a screamer to Alomar's backhand side that Alomar fielded cleanly. Making the play look like something he's done thousands of times before -- which, of course, he has -- Alomar flipped the ball with his glove, never touching it with his bare hand, to shortstop Julio Lugo to start a 4-6-3 double play. If Alomar can rediscover his hitting stroke -- and that's a mighty big if for a star in steep decline -- he'd be a huge help to this team. For a well-rounded guy who looked good Wednesday, I'd have to go with another down-and-out veteran, Alex S. Gonzalez. He's played 11 years in the big leagues but only lined up at third base nine times. Yet that's where the Rays are going to put him. Gonzalez made a couple of really nice plays there, especially on a sizzling line drive off the bat of Reds outfielder Rob Stratton in the third. Gonzalez -- yeah, he's the former Cubs shortstop who booted the ball in the famed Bartman inning two postseasons ago -- also had a double to center off Ben Weber and a double down the left field line off lefty Brian Shackelford. Granted, you can't get a smaller sample size than one Spring Training game, but for now A-Gone is looking good.
Team's biggest strengths
On a team that won 70 games last year -- and was happy about it -- you have to look for positives. But they are out there. The outfield, for instance. Even with Rocco Baldelli down with a knee injury, the Rays have speedy Carl Crawford (.296 with 59 steals in '04), big Aubrey Huff (.297, 29 homers, 104 RBIs) and newcomer Danny Bautista (.280, 16 homers, 74 RBIs and 17 steals last year for Arizona) roaming the green. The Rays won't be particularly speedy throughout the lineup, but with Crawford and Bautista near the top, manager Lou Piniella figures to use more hit-and-runs and be more aggressive on the basepaths. "I think we're going to put the ball in play better," Piniella said.
Team's biggest weakness
The Rays' biggest problem might be a real plus in a few years. But for right now, they're just so darn young. They're actually younger than last year, the youngest team in the American League (26.42 years, according to the Rays' PR people) and second in the majors behind the Rockies, who could start four rookies this year. Only five players on the Rays' 40-man roster have more than five years in the bigs. And of the 33 pitchers on the spring roster, 24 of them have fewer than two years experience in the majors. The pitching staff, of course, is where that youth could hurt the Rays the most. But if they make it through this year without being scarred for their baseball lives, they might be OK.
Piniella truly looks relaxed and glad to be at work after a trying week. His 86-year-old father, who has lived in the same Tampa home for nearly six decades and was one of the main reasons the younger Piniella left Seattle to come manage the Rays, died last Sunday morning. Piniella wasn't at camp for the latter part of last week and early in this one -- he let his coaches run things -- but he showed up at 6 a.m. Wednesday ready to go. "I'm just glad I got to be here," he told reporters. "It would have been very tough if I had been away." ... Rays general manager Chuck LaMar wasn't at the Progress Energy Park for the team's exhibition opener. He was attending the funeral of MLB.com Rays reporter Paul C. Smith, who passed away last weekend. ... Piniella said Wednesday that lefty Casey Fossum -- the former hot prospect the Red Sox traded for Curt Schilling -- probably will end up in the bullpen, largely because of the number of good, young arms in camp. .. Piniella hopes to have a decision on his five starters by the 15th or 20th of March, at the latest. He's looking for a good blend of older guys (say, Denny Neagle and Hideo Nomo) to help out the younger starters. That also would give the kids time to mature in the minors and give Piniella a little wiggle room if and when something goes wrong. ... The opener in St. Petersburg at Progress Energy Park -- the full name is Progress Energy Park, Home of Al Lang Field -- was sparsely attended (they said 1,833 showed up), but that probably had less to do with the Rays than the rays. There weren't any of them. On a cloudy, windy day when the temperatures didn't get much above the mid-50s, domed Tropicana Field just down the street looked awfully inviting.