In '03, Piniella just wants to make Rays respectable


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Lou Piniella looks relaxed and very much at home in a Tampa Bay Devil Rays uniform, which only makes sense if you know a little bit about Lou Piniella.

It's easy to be relaxed when you have nothing to prove. What other living manager has won 116 games in the regular season? Who else could enter a season with a perennial losing franchise with so little concern about his job security? The target for 2003: 70 victories.

Talk about a case of diminished expectations.

Piniella, though not a patient man, has the luxury of preaching patience to an organization that has absolutely nowhere to go but up after an abysmal 55-106 performance last year. The Devil Rays have never finished a season with more than 69 wins, and they do not have the payroll or the personnel to believe that this year will be much different.

The one thing Piniella can change right away, however, is the image and long-range outlook of the team. He is a proven winner who won a World Series ring in Cincinnati and turned the Seattle Mariners into one of the top teams in the American League.

No doubt, the long-suffering Devil Rays - if you can be considered long-suffering in your sixth year of existence - hope Piniella can work the same kind of magic at Tropicana Field, though orchestrating a dramatic organizational turnaround will be more a matter of method and money. In the short term, it will be about building credibility.

"That's what we'd like to do," Piniella said. "We'd be ahead of the game if a couple of pitchers step up and show they can compete at a respectable level."

There is no shortage of candidates for the Devil Rays pitching staff. The club opened camp with 39 pitchers competing for 12 spots. The only returning starter with any significant major-league experience is third-year left-hander Joe Kennedy. The bullpen is just as thin, with the relievers on the roster combining for a grand total of five major-league saves in 2002.

Some might call that a pitching shortage. Piniella looks across the field at Al Lang Stadium and sees a land of almost unprecedented opportunity.

"In Seattle, for instance, we didn't have to make too many decisions as far as our pitching was concerned," he said. "Here, it's totally different. If I were a pitcher in this camp, I would be very enthused about that. There are some wonderful opportunities for them.

"The only thing I don't want to do is be caught handing out jobs. I want to see good competition and people earning jobs. I think that's going to happen."

The starting rotation starts with Kennedy, who was 8-11 with a 4.53 ERA last year. The possibilities for the remaining slots range from the club's top pitching prospects (Nick Bierbrodt, Dewon Brazelton) to several marginal veterans (Jim Parque, Steve Parris) who are in camp on minor-league contracts.

"We'd like to have a good mix," Piniella said, "but we're going to take what we consider to be the best 12 pitchers. Ideally, we'd like to see a little experience in the bullpen and the rotation, but if a young kid wants to impress, he's got as good a chance as anybody."

The Devil Rays ranked last in the major leagues with a 5.29 team ERA in 2002. They also ranked last in the American League in saves and a variety of other categories. There really isn't any reason to believe they will do much better this year, but Piniella prefers to look at the glass as a quarter full rather than three-quarters empty.

"We're going to have a pretty good ballclub, and we're going to play exciting baseball," he said, "and we've got a plan that we're going to stick to and grow with."

The plan for this year is to play better defense, which explains why the Devil Rays obtained slick-fielding shortstop Rey Ordonez. Piniella also said the club will be more productive at the plate.

"My [No. 1] job as manager is to put the best defensive team on the field," he said. "I think our position players are going to be fine. We're going to have a nice little offensive team."

Well, maybe.

The Devil Rays ranked 12th in the American League with a .253 team batting average during a 2002 season in which Ben Grieve and banged-up slugger Greg Vaughn performed well below expectations.

Grieve batted .251 with 19 homers and 64 RBIs last year. Vaughn, who hit 50 home runs in 1998 and 45 in '99, struggled to a .163 average and eight homers in 251 at-bats.

Piniella will look for promising Aubrey Huff and former Phillies infielder Marlon Anderson to help juice up the offense, while hoping Grieve and Vaughn find their way back to the level of performance that once made them marquee hitters.

The Devil Rays probably would have given up on Vaughn by now if they weren't on the hook for another $9.25 million in guaranteed salary this year. They might still eat that contract if he doesn't convince them that he can again be a force in the middle of the lineup.

"I've got confidence that he's going to bounce back, have a good spring and be an impact player for us," Piniella said. "We're going to give him every opportunity to do that."

So far, the fans appear to be buying into the new program. Ticket sales were brisk at the club's FanFest weekend in February, spurring hope a turnaround at the turnstiles will provide the revenue to realize Piniella's long-term vision. But it will take more than his winning personality to get where he wants the organization to go.

"I'm new," Piniella said. "It's great initially, but invariably you're going to have to win games on the field. That's what it amounts to. It's going to be a challenge, but I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised."

The plan calls for the Devil Rays to set a club record for victories this year - a fairly modest goal - and to be "competitive" in the American League East by 2005. That won't be easy, considering the lengths to which the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox go each winter to maintain their lock on the top two spots in the division standings, but Piniella apparently has been assured the Devil Rays will spend money to upgrade the team over the next two years.

In the meantime, it's about changing the way the organization feels about itself.

"I'm no miracle worker," Piniella said, "but what we do here is, we're fair, we're honest, we're open and we're going to give everybody a chance to show what they can do."

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