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Rays happily take on troubled players

PORT CHARLOTTE — It's easy to add Yunel Escobar's name to the list. Roberto Hernandez and Juan Carlos Oviedo, under different circumstances, can be penciled on there, too. Last year it was Fernando Rodney for one reason, Josh Lueke for another. Before them, Manny Ramirez, Matt Bush, Rafael Soriano, Gregg Zaun, Willy Aybar and others.

Several have been tainted by controversies of various sizes. Branded as selfish, sullen, moody. Some with bad reps, a few with rap sheets.

In their ongoing battle to find bargain-based ways to remain competitive, the Rays have found themselves becoming more creative, more resourceful and — fingers crossed — more willing to take risks on players with checkered pasts. Though it's hardly a room full of reprobates, the Rays have opened their clubhouse, and their arms, to players who come with questions about their character, makeup, decision-making.

"We pride ourselves on staying open-minded and leaving no stone unturned in terms of our player procurement," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "We do a tremendous amount of work not just on the guy's ability but also in terms of how we feel like he'll fit into our culture. We're able to take more risks now than we were in '06 and '07, but it's not something we take lightly. And our resources, vis a vis our competitors, certainly contribute to that."

Not all their rehab projects have had happy endings.

Bush, who had alcohol problems, got drunk again last spring and caused a horrific crash that left a man severely injured and himself in jail, his career essentially over. Ramirez, who already had performance-enhancing drug issues, got caught taking something else he shouldn't have and walked away from the Rays in the face of another suspension.

But for the most part, given the extensive research the Rays do before bringing such a player in and the encouraging environment they create when he arrives, they have done relatively well on the damaged-goods market. Rodney, whose makeup was questioned in Anaheim, has been a great addition on the field and in the clubhouse at a fraction of the cost. Similarly, Hernandez could end up in their rotation.

"They're willing to take chances because they know what they've got," reliever Joel Peralta said. "They can fix things by the way they treat players.

"When you're in a place and people treat you bad, you don't want to be there. But when you feel comfortable in a place where you know people want you around and they're helping you, you're going to try your best to be good and to be a nice guy."

The players were labeled for different reasons. Among the newcomers, Hernandez (formerly known as Fausto Carmona) and Oviedo (Leo Nunez) faced legal action and suspensions for identity fraud, though the result of decisions considered common in their native Dominican Republic.

Escobar, the Rays' new shortstop, was said to be selfish and cocky in previous stints with the Braves and Blue Jays, and made the well-publicized mistake last season in Toronto of wearing an inappropriate homophobic message on his eye black.

But Escobar, at least in the casual days of spring training, has shown to be a tremendous talent and not a bit of a problem. And the Rays are working to make his future better than the past that preceded him to Tampa Bay.

"I listen (to what's been said)," manager Joe Maddon said. "But then he's here, and so when you're here, let's fit within our system and see how it works."

It's that system — however defined — that seems to make the biggest difference.

"We can deal with anybody," outfielder Sam Fuld said. "Anyone and everyone fits in here. That's sort of a beautiful thing to be able to know you can bring just about anybody in here and make them feel comfortable and fit in, whatever sort of baggage anyone comes in with, in theory."

Certainly the casual clubhouse culture cultivated by Maddon and staff is a central factor, given the few rules and minimal judging.

"When a guy comes over, it's like, 'Dude, everybody's crazy here,' " Peralta said. "That makes you feel good. Nobody's going to mess with you. You do your thing, go about your business, you have fun."

Or as ace David Price said: "It reminds me a lot of (the movie) Major League. It's a bunch of oddballs put into one scenario."

The players not only get a clean slate but something of a free pass. Bench coach Dave Martinez said the onfield staff doesn't bring up the past issues unless the player wants to talk about it.

The Rays have grown more comfortable taking chances as their culture has become established and their credibility has grown in terms of getting these types of players "to trust our process," Friedman said. Also, they've developed a better feel for which players will work best, acknowledging "there are guys we've walked away from in the past we didn't feel like were a good mix with our culture, and probably some of the guys we brought in, other organizations felt the same way about."

And because the overall ledger has been good, the incumbent players are more accepting.

"They do their research on guys," Price said. "We don't just go out on a limb and sign people. It kind of might seem that way with some of the guys we do sign and some of the problems they've had, that we try and get guys when they're at the bottom of their own barrel and they're like, 'Okay, I'll play for the Rays,' but it's not that. People want to come here. And they definitely do their research on guys to make sure they want to be part of this system. So it's good."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com.

Rays happily take on troubled players 03/23/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 23, 2013 10:46pm]
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