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Rays stabilize third

Landing veteran Alex Gonzalez to play third base allowed the Devil Rays to plug one major hole and move on to filling in the remaining blanks in their lineup, starting with an offer to outfielder Danny Bautista.

Gonzalez, a starting shortstop the past 11 years for the Blue Jays and Cubs, agreed to terms on a one-year deal for $1.75-million, with another $250,000 available in incentives, subject to a physical exam.

The Miami native, who turns 32 in April, averaged 17.5 homers and 66 RBIs with a .245 average from 2000-03 but had something of a lost 2004 season, missing two months with a broken wrist and being traded twice.

"We're getting a proven veteran who's an outstanding baseball player on the field and in the clubhouse," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "We think moving to third base at this stage of his career will help him, as will coming back to the American League, like it did Tino Martinez. We think he's a good fit."

Gonzalez said he was looking forward to the opportunity to play regularly, to play near his south Florida home and to play for manager Lou Piniella. And he said he welcomed the challenge of changing positions, having played 1,247 career games at shortstop and only nine at third _ none since 1995.

"The move to third base will be a little bit of an adjustment," Gonzalez said. "It will be a lot of hard work, but hopefully I can do all the bumps and grinds in spring training and get through it. It's still the left side of the infield; it's just a matter of getting used to the speed of the ball."

With Gonzalez at third, the Rays are ready to address their other openings, looking to sign either a leftfielder or a first baseman and take advantage of Aubrey Huff's versatility by moving him to the other open slot, then see if there is any room left in their major-league-low $32-million payroll to add a second baseman.

If they can work out a deal with Bautista, who hit .286 with 11 homers and 65 RBIs last season for Arizona, they will use him in leftfield (until Rocco Baldelli returns around midseason from a knee injury) and play Huff at first base.

If they can't get Bautista, who will have to take a big cut from the $4-million he made last season, they will seek to sign a first baseman, most likely Travis Lee, and play Huff in leftfield, knowing they will have to move him again when Baldelli returns.

If they have enough money left, they will pursue a second baseman _ Mark Grudzielanek, Alex Cora and Miguel Cairo are all still on the market _ and use Jorge Cantu as a utility infielder. If not, Cantu, who was impressive in his late-season debut, will start at second and they will add a reserve.

The Rays turned to Gonzalez when the price for other free-agent third basemen, such as Corey Koskie and Joe Randa, got too high. Tony Batista, in whom they also had interest, appears headed to Japan.

In Gonzalez, the Rays are getting an established veteran who can provide some leadership and consistency, should be able to hit 30-35 doubles and 15-20 homers and do a decent job in the field. They are also getting a player who strikes out a lot _ an average of 128 times over his past five full seasons _ and has been on the disabled list five times in the past eight seasons. (He said Wednesday the broken right wrist that sidelined him for more than two months last season is totally healed.)

They are not, to try to avoid the inevitable confusion, getting the Alex Gonzalez who is 27 years old, plays for the Marlins and has been an All-Star.

Piniella, who tried to lure Gonzalez to Seattle when Alex Rodriguez left as a free agent, was excited by the addition.

"He works hard, he has some athleticism, he should be an asset to the club with his bat and his glove," Piniella said. "It should be a good fit."

Gonzalez, who is close friends with outfielder Jose Cruz, said he thought it would be, too.

"I think it's going to be a team that's fun to play for," he said.

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