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Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Overall rank: 30 Division rank: 5
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The hiring of Lou Piniella was a major upgrade, but the lineup's look is minor league

By Daniel G. Habib

Baldelli, 21, who started last season in Class A, begins this year as one of the AL's most-hyped rookies. John Iacono
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Devil Rays
"My advice to Lou Piniella: Go to church every morning before you go to the ballpark, because you'll need miracles to get this team to win. ... Rocco Baldelli is about as natural a big league star as I've seen in years. He can go get the ball with the very best outfielders, has a plus arm and can run like hell. He's my choice to be Rookie of the Year. ... Aubrey Huff is a kid who has a pretty good bat and some power, but where do you play him? I don't ever see him being an every-day third baseman in the big leagues. First base may be his best position. ... Rey Ordoñez is a showboat at short. He'll slide and do all that jazz on routine plays. He could be a hell of a shortstop, but he makes a lot of foolish errors. ... Damian Rolls will help the club more than Greg Vaughn [who was cut on March 22] would have, but right now, he's a below-average hitter. Playing regularly, he has a chance to hit .260. ... I like Joe Kennedy. He's got a lot of deception in his delivery because he throws way across his body. His fastball is always sinking or doing something. And he's learning to throw all speeds. ... Lance Carter knows how to pitch. Some say he may be their closer. That's how bad they are."
In 2002 the Devil Rays became the first team to claim sole possession of last place in their division five years in a row since the Blue Jays did it from 1977 through '81.
All eyes are on Rocco Baldelli, but Baldelli's are on outfielder Jason Tyner, who's lounging mischievously in the folding chair in front of Baldelli's spring training locker. As Baldelli shoos him aside, Tyner says with a laugh, "I've given three interviews today as Rocco Baldelli."

In a clubhouse crowded with the unfamiliar faces of overachieving minor leaguers and crumbling journeymen, Baldelli can find, if not for long, a measure of anonymity. The 21-year-old centerfielder was Baseball America's 2002 Minor League Player of the Year, hitting .331 with 19 home runs while vaulting from Class A Bakersfield to Triple A Durham. And though he has as many big league at bats as Rocky Balboa, the Devil Rays have written him into their starting lineup. A half-dozen lockers down from Baldelli's sits leftfielder Carl Crawford, also 21, who hit .297 with 26 stolen bases at Durham and whose 63 games with Tampa last season make him a comparative veteran. The Devil Rays hope Baldelli and Crawford are the nucleus around which the team can construct a future winner.

Without any better options, Tampa has decided the future is now. "If there's no veteran behind them, there's no risk, no risk at all," says new manager Lou Piniella, whose Mariners teams won 300 games over the last three years. "Everybody talks about patience. You know what? Too much patience is stupidity."

Baldelli and Crawford are natural athletes -- Baldelli attracted interest from Division I basketball and volleyball programs, Crawford accepted a scholarship to play quarterback at Nebraska before signing with Tampa instead -- with speed and defensive grace. But neither is a disciplined hitter, a message Piniella has hammered home in one-on-one chats. Last year Crawford walked 29 times in 612 at bats, while Baldelli drew 23 walks in 478. "He told me not to lose my aggressiveness but to look for an area of the plate to cover," Baldelli says. "In the past I've pretty much been looking for strikes, and if it's around the plate, I take a hack at it. But if you're looking at a spot, maybe you can lay off the tougher pitches and draw more walks."

During the winter the laid-back Baldelli lived at home in Warwick, R.I., lifted weights five days a week and lounged at his father's combination coffee shop-pawnbroker-check cashing establishment, which also has a batting cage in the basement. In describing the place Rocco pauses and then says, "Sounds like a party house."

One of the few players in Tampa Bay's lineup with anything to celebrate in 2002 was Aubrey Huff, who led the team in batting average (.313), slugging (.520) and home runs (23) while playing in only 113 games. Last March a throw from third baseman Jared Sandberg struck Huff, who was playing first, in the left eye and fractured three bones around the socket. (Doctors told Huff that had the ball struck an inch to the right, it would have driven his eyeball deep into the socket and blinded him.) He spent five days in a hotel room bed, waiting for the swelling to subside enough for surgery. After a titanium-alloy plate was inserted, however, Huff returned in late May, when he was installed as the DH.

In bidding to become the every-day third baseman, Huff made his defense a priority this spring. He's trying to loosen his wrists and soften his hands to catch the ball better, and he starts moving his feet during the pitcher's windup so he isn't caught flat-footed reading the ball off the bat. "I want to be respected as a position player," Huff says. "I don't want to be considered a 26-year-old DH."

The Devil Rays are also aggressively promoting their young pitching talent. Joe Kennedy, 23, who has made 50 major league starts, is the putative ace after going 8-11 with a 4.53 ERA. Though Tampa Bay's potential appears to be greater than ever, it won't yet translate into wins. "I never thought I'd say, 'Boy, if we win 75 games, we're doing well,'" Piniella says, "but I have to be realistic, too."

The new manager may not be patient, but he's not stupid either.

Issue date: March 31, 2003