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New Rays may look a lot like old Rays

The final roster probably won't be much different from the end of 2000.

Spring break, as it were, is over for the Devil Rays. Mexico City might not be as chic a destination as Cancun, but the recently completed weekend series will be the end of the good times for many Rays.

Tampa Bay trimmed its roster from 70 to 42 with relative ease in the past two weeks. Now, with opening day exactly two weeks away, the Rays will determine exactly what their roster will look like in 2001.

The safe bet is that it will look a lot like the end of 2000.

Although there was winter talk about the Rays working prospects into the mix this season, the short-term reality could be vastly different.

Pitchers Bobby Seay and Matt White were told they could win jobs this spring, but they have done little with the opportunity. Josh Hamilton has impressed onlookers throughout the Grapefruit League with his obvious tools, but he has not made a convincing case to jump from Class A to the majors at age 19.

Even younger players who are ready to be in the majors, such as third baseman Aubrey Huff and second baseman Brent Abernathy, could start the year at Triple A more for business than baseball reasons.

General manager Chuck LaMar has shown a penchant for manipulating the roster to hold on to as many assets as possible in past springs. At times, it has paid off. Because Joe Oliver signed a minor-league deal in 1999, LaMar made the veteran honor the contract at Triple-A Durham before dealing him for Jose Guillen. He kept as many outfielders in the organization as possible last spring and later traded Bubba Trammell in a deal that brought Paul Wilson.

The Rays could use a similar strategy in the next few weeks, taking advantage of minor-league options to send down youngsters while holding on to some familiar faces a little longer.

"We will play the option game, if need be," LaMar said. "Not only have we had some luck holding on to players in the past and trading them later in the summer, but it also protects us injury-wise. So we may end up using options for players we don't have to keep."

Manager Larry Rothschild also has said he would like to get within a few players of the 25-man roster this week and begin getting his lineup set.

With 14 days remaining to trim 17 players, here is a breakdown of the possibilities.

Starting rotation

The tough choices in the rotation may not come until mid April or later. It is a near certainty that Wilson Alvarez will begin the season on the disabled list and Juan Guzman will probably join him until April 17, to avoid having him test his shoulder on a long road trip in cold-weather cities.

That means Wilson, Albie Lopez, Ryan Rupe, Bryan Rekar and Travis Harper likely will begin the season in the rotation. The first two turns in the rotation will be critical because Guzman will be bumping somebody soon. Alvarez is not likely to return until late April or May.

White, who was considered a contender for the No. 5 spot, probably will return to Triple-A Durham.

Bullpen

Perhaps the most unsettled spot on the club. After dealing Jim Mecir, Rick White, Mark Guthrie and Roberto Hernandez in separate trades over a six-month span, the Rays have plenty of shifting in the bullpen.

Barring a meltdown by one of these three right-handers in the next two weeks, look for Ken Hill, Tanyon Sturtze and Esteban Yan to be interchangeable as set-up men and closers in the eighth and ninth innings.

Doug Creek probably has retained his role as a left-handed specialist, while Seay likely has sabotaged his chance with a rough spring. Jeff Wallace and Trevor Enders are the only other lefties around, although Rothschild said he has not decided whether to keep one or two left-handers.

Dan Wheeler and Rusty Meacham are vying for roles as middle relievers. A trio of young right-handers _ Jesus Colome, Travis Phelps and Jason Standridge _ likely will return to the minors. Also keep in mind that LaMar has mentioned the possibility of trading for bullpen help around this time of the spring.

Catchers

John Flaherty and Mike DiFelice return for their fourth seasons with Tampa Bay, if one is not traded within the next two weeks.

Several teams are looking for catching help, and DiFelice's name keeps popping up. At 31, DiFelice is eager for a chance to be a full-time starter, and the Rays eventually need to make room for prospect Toby Hall.

Infield

The Rays likely will carry seven infielders, and four of those spots are wrapped up by first baseman Fred McGriff, first baseman/designated hitter Steve Cox, shortstop Felix Martinez and third baseman Vinny Castilla. Russ Johnson has played well enough to be considered a near lock for another job.

That leaves two openings for Abernathy, Huff, Ozzie Guillen, Damian Rolls and Bobby Smith.

Abernathy, 23, was considered the favorite at second base coming into camp and has had a solid spring but could be a victim of numbers. Since he has minor-league options remaining, Abernathy might be sent to Durham for a couple of months, with Johnson babysitting the position. Ditto for Huff, 24, who is biding his time behind Castilla at third base.

Smith, 26, is out of options and either remains on the roster or is waived. Rolls, 23, still is under a Rule 5 umbrella after missing most of 2000 with an injury, so he must remain on the roster for at least 59 days or be waived and offered back to the Dodgers. Guillen, 37, likely would ask for his release rather than go to the minors.

So the decision in the next 14 days is when, or if, the Rays decide to part ways with Smith, Rolls and Guillen. If the Rays take the safe path and send down Abernathy and Huff, they need cut only one of the other three.

Best guess? Smith is the odd man out.

Outfield

The starters are set: Greg Vaughn in left, Gerald Williams in center and Ben Grieve in right. That leaves two openings for four outfielders.

There is no way Hamilton is going to sit on the bench and he has not beaten anyone out of a starting job, so he likely is heading to Double-A Orlando.

The remaining candidates are Jose Guillen, Jason Tyner and Randy Winn. Tyner and Winn are similar players and Tyner has options remaining. Guess what that means? Guillen makes a little much for a backup on this team ($975,000) and is potential trade bait for pitching. But Guillen could have a role playing rightfield with Grieve moving to DH against left-handers, and he also would provide the Rays with a right-handed bat off the bench.

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