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LaMar and Naimoli maintain their balance

Just in case you were wondering, the top Devil Rays say they know what they're doing.

GM Chuck LaMar and managing general partner Vince Naimoli say they have a good handle on the direction of the franchise, that the team is pretty much on track and that the future looks rather bright.

But they also say they have not determined whether the payroll will go up or down from $34-million, that they don't know which key veterans will be back and that they didn't make any trades last weekend because they didn't think the potential deals would make the team better, short- or long-term.

Basically, they say proudly the direction of the franchise is the same as it has been _ walking the fine line of trying to be as competitive as possible now without impeding long-term development, banking that it all will come together in 2001-02.

"I think we're headed exactly in the direction we thought we would be," LaMar said. "And without the injuries I don't think the direction of the organization would even be asked about. I think this is a club that could have won 70-plus games, and how close we could have gotten to .500 no one will know at this point."

Despite the potential to surpass last season's 99 defeats, Naimoli and LaMar say they are pleased with the progress, effects of the ravaging injuries aside.

Naimoli says the team is close to the "trend line" he envisioned, "with the potential to significantly exceed it, and I think that's what we'll see next year frankly."

As LaMar and Naimoli begin plotting for 2000, they say they will decide first whether to retain players, then determine what other changes to make. Fred McGriff and John Flaherty are at the end of their contracts, and the decision not to trade either could be a sign the Rays want them back. The team holds options to bring back Wade Boggs, Jose Canseco, Dave Martinez and Paul Sorrento. Talks may start soon.

"You have to take care of your house first," LaMar said. "Until those decisions are made, we're guessing at that payroll. Once those are in place, then we'll know how much money we then have to spend to improve the club."

LaMar says he would like to keep the veterans together but can't make any guarantees and remains open to trades. Roberto Hernandez would seem likely to be a prime topic of off-season discussion.

In one breath, LaMar says, "If we can put a better product on the field and possibly a younger product on the field for less money, everybody in baseball would do that. That's just common sense." In another, he says the Rays will remain opportunistic, pointing out how they spent $20.2-million in bonuses for pitchers Rolando Arrojo, Bobby Seay and Matt White, how they bid a reported $30-million for Dean Palmer in November, how they signed Canseco to an incentive-laden deal.

"I think the fans take it as, "Good, they kept the veterans. Well that's great on one hand, but we want to get better. Chuck, make some moves to get better,' " LaMar said. "Again, we fight that double-edged sword and will continue to walk that fine line."

SHOWING THEIR METTLE: Minor-league pitchers Dan Wheeler and Seay played a large part in the U.S. team's silver-medal showing at the Pan American Games. Seay got the final four outs in a 3-2 win over Brazil. And Wheeler had to be considered one of the team MVPs after 5 strong relief innings in the stunning 10-5 victory over Cuba, then four perfect innings in the 2-1 win over Mexico that qualified the United States for the Olympics.

BOBBING ALONG: Now that Boggs has hit No. 3,000, 3B Bobby Smith will get more of a chance to get his own hits. Smith has struggled in limited action since being recalled from Triple-A Durham, and manager Larry Rothschild wants to see what he can do on a daily basis, "with him knowing he's going to get that chance, where he gets the chance to come to the park and get in a routine." Boggs will get some at-bats at DH and possibly first base. . . . The Rays also want to look more at OF Rich Butler, but playing time has been tight in the outfield and is likely to get tighter when Jose Guillen gets called up, likely Sept. 1.

MINOR MATTER: The Rays will assign five Class A/AA players to the Rancho Cucamonga Surfers of the new California Fall League. Bill Russell, the Rays' Double-A Orlando skipper, will be the manager. The 42-game regular season will run from Sept. 23 to Nov. 5. The other teams are the Lake Elsinore Land Sharks, Lancaster Stealth and San Bernadino Sand Dragons.