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Now they're younger; will that mean better?

If the Rays can keep playing as they've been playing for much of the past couple weeks, manager Hal McRae is sure they'll win more games in the second half than they did in the first.

"That's a certainty," McRae said.

But as much as improvement on their 27-61 record would be welcomed, it won't be the true measure of their second half.

That won't come until the off-season, or next year, or even the following season, when the results _ the success or failure _ of the current youth movement will be determined.

"It's extremely hard to gauge young players, yet right now we have to," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "The true gauge is who you truly believe is an everyday player in the future, or a starting pitcher, or a closer."

The evaluation process, at times, can be painful for fans to watch. It's not that much easier for team officials either.

"It's very hard to measure if a player can hit that, or pitch this, or have that ERA," LaMar said. "It just has to come down to when Toby Hall is given that opportunity, which he will be, do we as an organization believe he will be an everyday catcher? Is Steve Cox truly in the future going to be an everyday first baseman on a winning club? And it's the same for Brent Abernathy, Jason Tyner, Randy Winn, Joe Kennedy, Jason Standridge, Jesus Colome "If we can look at it and say the majority _ not all _ but if the majority have a chance to do that, no matter how bleak the situation looks, no matter how bad our record seems, then truly there is a silver lining to this year. We're not just selling the fans, "Okay, we're going young,' because that just bides time. We're trying to give our young players the chance to truly see of that group how many can become everyday players in the major leagues."

Obviously, such experimenting can make life _ and winning games _ even more treacherous for McRae. But he'll manage, knowing the process is essential to the team's growth and future success.

"We've got to try to finalize among the players that are here what we have, who we're going to keep and where they're going to play, and what are the needs and what holes are we going to fill. And we have a few of those," McRae said.

"I would be happy if we can say, "We need one of these, we need one of those,' because we can't come back (next season) as we are. If we come back with the same personnel, we sort of wasted time. We have to realize what we have, what we're going to take forward, what we're going to eliminate, what areas we're going to improve in."

That should eliminate one of the team's other major problems.

"The team has to complement each other," McRae said. "We don't complement each other. You don't have to have the best players, but the players you have have to complement each other. They can't be the same."

What McRae means is that you can't have a roster with too many DH-type players (like, say, Fred McGriff, Greg Vaughn and Ben Grieve), or too many speedy slap hitters, or too many good-glove, no-hit guys.

"It doesn't mean you don't have good players, but sometimes you don't have a good mix," he said. "The players can fit on a lot of teams in a lot of places, but what you're looking for is a fit and a mix. A good mix. We need a better mix, that's all."

POCKET PLANNER: A revision to the scheduling process cost the Rays a trip to Arizona next season.

Major League Baseball officials, again showing their infinite wisdom, decided it was more important for the Rays to play two series against the Marlins _ preserving that fierce "natural" rivalry _ than to play all of the NL West opponents.

So the Rays miss out on what would have been the first meeting with their expansion brethren Diamondbacks, and get to make one of their more bizarre trips, from home to south Florida to San Francisco to Colorado.

Overall, the Rays again play 19 games against each of their AL East rivals, including 13 of their first 44 against Baltimore. They get just one visit from Detroit, Minnesota, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Seattle, Oakland, San Diego and Los Angeles.

Flashing back to the 1998 inaugural, the Rays will open the season at home against Detroit, tentatively on Monday, April 1.

HOO-RAYS: Raymond's fourth birthday bash is Thursday, and the Rays are expecting several thousand kids to help celebrate as part of Parks and Recreation day.

RAYS TALES

BALL FORE?: Rays right-hander Tanyon Sturtze, if you ask most hitters, has pretty decent stuff on the mound. If you go by what the editors of T&L Golf magazine say, he can be pretty good on the links, too.

Sturtze has been named one of top golfers among major-league players, with a five handicap that ranks just below Atlanta's John Smoltz and Baltimore's Mike Trombley (zero), Oakland's Mark Mulder and Houston's Bill Spiers (three) and Texas' Rick Helling (four).

Sturtze acknowledged the five handicap (and noted he won't be getting any additional strokes now that it has been in the paper), but shrugged off the lofty status. "I play to relax," he said. "I just enjoy going out, playing and having fun."

He has competed in a few tournaments, including a round at Pebble Beach as part of baseball's World Series of Golf, but said he doesn't envision himself trying the pro tour.

"I've put a lot of grind into playing (baseball)," Sturtze said. "I don't know if I'd want to do that with golf too."

His dream round? With the late Payne Stewart.

"I loved everything about him," Sturtze said. "The way he played, the way he carried himself. Everything. He was just awesome."

PAGING MRS. ALVAREZ: Pitcher Wilson Alvarez caught the attention of more than a few people (and high-ranking Rays officials) when he suggested he might retire, and walk away from an $8-million salary next season, if he can't complete his arm and shoulder rehabilitation and pitch in games this season.

Rays manager Hal McRae, for one, doubts Alvarez would do it. "I can't speak for Wilson, but I think he's going to play," McRae said. "I think he has six, seven, eight million reasons to come back. I don't think his wife would be very happy if he decided to retire."

IN THE REALLY BAD NEWS DEPARTMENT: Not only do the Rays have the worst record in the majors, they also have the toughest schedule of any team in the second half. The combined winning percentage of the Rays' second-half opponents is .538. The team with the easiest second-half schedule is the Yankees. Think that has anything to do with the teams having 12 games left to play?

ONCE UPON A TIME . . . If the Rays do trade Fred McGriff, there will be only six players from the 1998 opening day roster still in the organization, and only four currently active at the big-league level. Here is a look at the original 25, with the current Rays in bold type:

PITCHERS

Wilson Alvarez+ (bold)

Rolando Arrojo

Dan Carlson

Rick Gorecki

Roberto Hernandez

Albie Lopez (bold)

Jim Mecir

Tony Saunders

Dennis Springer

Ramon Tatis

Esteban Yan (bold)

CATCHERS

Mike DiFelice (bold)

John Flaherty (bold)

INFIELDERS

Wade Boggs

Miguel Cairo

Aaron Ledesma

Fred McGriff (bold)

Bobby Smith++ (bold)

Paul Sorrento

Kevin Stocker

OUTFIELDERS

Rich Butler

Mike Kelly

Dave Martinez

Quinton McCracken

Bubba Trammell

+ on disabled list;

++ in Triple A.

WHAT THEY'RE SAYING A headline in Friday's New York Times: As Cubs Wait, McGriff Plays Hamlet

QUOTE OF THE WEEK "It still only counts for one. The margin of victory doesn't mean anything."

_ HAL McRAE, Rays manager after 10-0 win Thursday

BY THE NUMBERS 9: Times in team history a McGriff homer kept Rays from being shut out.

28: Average age of Rays, second-youngest in majors.

32: Games, of 91, in which Rays have scored two or fewer.

RAYS VS. RAYS VS. RAYS VS. RAYS

After 91 games Overall

Year W-L Pct. P-GB W-L .Pct. P-GB

2001 28-63 .308 5-26 50-112+ .309+ ?-??

2000 37-54 .407 5-12.5 69-92 .429 5-18

1999 40-51 .440 4-14 69-93 .426 5-29

1998 34-57 .374 5-33.5 63-99 .389 5-51

+ projected. P-GB: Place in East Division-games behind first

_ MARC TOPKIN

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