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Piniella sold on kid outfielders

That sure didn't take long.

There may be many decisions Lou Piniella still has to make, but the Devil Rays manager said Sunday he already has seen enough of rookie centerfielder Rocco Baldelli and second-year leftfielder Carl Crawford to know they will be on the big-league roster and in the opening day lineup.

"They're going to learn on the job," Piniella said. "It's going to be on-the-job training, that's all it is."

The 21-year-olds have tremendous physical skills that are apparent in the field, at the plate and on the bases. But Piniella said it was their attitude and approach that convinced him they were ready now to be part of a team that is building for the future.

"What did they need to show me? They both have good character. They're both strong kids obviously. They have the physical ability. Both kids are fairly strong mentally," Piniella said.

"Yeah, they're green in certain areas and we recognize that. But you know what? So what? You live with that and you grow with it and you encourage them and you teach them. They're both fine, good-looking young players, and as they get more experience they're going to get better and better."

Keeping Baldelli and Crawford on the team fits with the latest organizational philosophy of giving the top young players an opportunity, even if they have some rough times and need occasional respites. That's the same reason 22-year-olds Seth McClung and Dewon Brazelton appear to have excellent chances to be on the pitching staff, and why some of the players shipped out in today's first cut will be veterans with big-league experience.

"We want to grow with our young kids as much as possible and (Baldelli and Crawford) are a big part of our future, obviously, and we're going to do just that," Piniella said. "We'll have a very young pitching staff, we're going to grow with our young pitching staff. We're going to live with some mistakes at times, but we want to see improvement."

The decisions on the outfielders, especially on Baldelli, were considered some of the most significant of the spring. Piniella chose to make it official in interesting fashion.

Asked a generic question before Sunday's 8-3 win over the Yankees about his plans for the outfield, Piniella said Crawford and Baldelli would be there and Ben Grieve "will end up" in rightfield.

One thing: He hadn't informed Crawford and Baldelli of his decision.

"You can tell both kids they're going to be in my opening day lineup and they're going to be out there," he said to a group of reporters, who scurried out of his office to do just that.

Crawford, who hit .259 in 63 games after a late July callup, said he was relieved to hear the news.

"So I guess I can relax, huh?" he said. "By knowing that I can get ready and work on the things I need to work on in the spring and not feel like I've got to get a hit every time up. I can work on bunting and basestealing and getting all ready for the season."

Baldelli, who has played just 40 games (and has had just 178 plate appearances) above the Class A level, was a little more circumspect, politely refusing to take anyone's word for it. At one point, Piniella walked by laughing at the crowd around the locker Baldelli has been sharing with B.J. Upton.

"As much as I believe what you guys just said and as much as I believe Lou said it because you guys told me, nothing's going to change from my perspective," Baldelli said. "I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing."

One thing that impressed the Rays the most was the way Baldelli handled himself after a rough start to the spring, going 0-for-13 through the intrasquad, Eckerd College and initial exhibitions.

"It would be very easy for a young guy who did not get a hit in four-five games to start to really press and question things," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "But over the last four-five days I think everybody has seen the true ability that he has."

Baldelli raised his average to .292 by going 7-for-17 with two homers over the past week, including a bases-loaded double in the sixth off New York's Jose Contreras that led to Sunday's win. Crawford, who had three hits Saturday, raised his average to .360 with two hits Sunday and stole a base.

They looked like major-leaguers.

"They are major-leaguers," Piniella said.