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Make this look good? Forget it

Regardless of what Fred McGriff decides today, the deadline has passed.

Not for the would-be trade that might ship out Tampa Bay's first and only bobblehead icon (bobble once if you want to stay home, twice if you want to go to Chicago), but for the Rays to pretend they are not dealing for dollars.

This swap would look good only on Dean Witter's resume. It is so shockingly one-sided, Cubs fans ought to be suspicious. On this side, you have a hometown veteran on his way to a .330, 30-home run, 100-RBI season. On the other side, you have a journeyman reliever and a minor-league shortstop who can list hitting and fielding among his weaknesses.

What, was Miguel Cairo not available?

We have seen salary dumping before, but it has always been muted by shades of gray. Roberto Hernandez and Jim Mecir were dealt for monetary concerns, but they brought Ben Grieve and Jesus Colome in return. Gerald Williams was released before he could vest another year of his contract, but his inability to recognize a strike had made him a slight liability.

There is no dressing up this trade. It was made not to bring in Manny Aybar or Jason Smith, but to rid the organization of McGriff's salary. Losing a ton of games apparently is acceptable. Losing a ton of money is not.

Salary has been mentioned as a factor in the deal, but Rays officials also are spinning the need to get Steve Cox in the lineup.

Nice try, but it's not like the Rays just discovered Cox might be a decent player. Did they not notice it last season when Cox was Tampa Bay's most dependable hitter after McGriff and Greg Vaughn? Or, for that matter, were the Rays so unimpressed by Cox's MVP season at Triple-A Durham in 1999 that they gave McGriff this contract extension with a no-trade clause?

Whether McGriff accepts the trade or not, a direction has been established. And that would be reverse.

The Rays are going to get cheaper before they get better. They began 2000 with the 10th-highest payroll in the majors. They began this season in the middle of the pack. Do not be surprised, by the end of next season, when the Rays are bottom-feeding with the Expos and Twins of the baseball world.

If Tampa Bay is willing to deal its best hitter for chumps and change, that does not bode well for the other big earners on the team. Albie Lopez is as good as gone, either traded this summer or via free agency in the winter. Catcher John Flaherty may be packing, too. Greg Vaughn (who probably would not be so picky about waiving his limited no-trade clause) will be dealt if the Rays can find a team not horrified by his contract.

None of this comes as a tremendous surprise. The first thing chief operating officer John McHale Jr. did when he arrived in town was to ask general manager Chuck LaMar if he had receipts for any recent acquisitions so they might be returned or exchanged.

From his very first news conference, McHale has made it clear that revamping the roster was going to take several years. And, careful not to blame fans for what might politely be called lackluster support, he correctly pointed out that a high payroll does not mesh well with low revenues.

The surprise is what lengths the Rays are willing to go in order to rid themselves of financial burdens.

Normally when you trade a player at midseason for financial reasons, you seek one of the other organization's best prospects in return.

In order to move McGriff, in the midst of a career year, the Rays were willing to overlook quality when it came to compensation. For Aybar, this would be his fifth trade since December 1999. When it comes to trades, he is the player to be named often. Smith has a .243 batting average in five years in the minors and is on his way to his third season of 30-plus errors.

To be fair, there was not tremendous demand for McGriff, who is 37 and plays a position that, historically, is easy to fill. But the point is the Rays were willing to trade him anyway.

No person, no organization, should be consigned to toss money into the wind. And the Rays are correct in believing they are better off losing 110 games with a $30-million payroll than 100 games with a $50-million payroll.

They also are better off giving younger players a chance to grow rather than veteran players the opportunity to grow old.

The problem is these decisions should have been made two years ago. Before wasting money on Vinny Castilla, on Juan Guzman, on Vaughn and on Williams. The Rays would have had two extra years to evaluate their young talent, and many extra millions to fill the roster with more sensibly priced, and consistent, veterans.

Instead, the Rays are in the position of tearing down something that was never fully built.

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