5 Tampa Bay Devil Rays A longtime doormat builds a formidable lineup, but it's not enough to move up

April 04, 2004

Though it was no more than a blip on the national sports radar,
the signing of outfielder-DH-first baseman Aubrey Huff to a
three-year, $14.5 million contract extension on Jan. 8 was most
significant to the future of Tampa Bay baseball. "A historic day
for this franchise," general manager Chuck LaMar calls it.

Who is Aubrey Huff? And why should anyone care that the Devil
Rays threw good money at him? In batting .311 with 198 hits, 34
home runs and 107 RBIs last year, Huff fell just short of
becoming the 16th player in American League history to have 200
hits, 35 homers and 100 RBIs in a season. Best of all, the
woebegone franchise was able to keep one of the game's bright
young stars in town.

"It sent a message to our players that you can be a really good
player and stay here," says LaMar. "It sent a message to our
fans, who were wondering, Are you developing young stars just so
you can trade them off? By the end of this year, hopefully, we'll
be having the same discussions we had with Aubrey with Carl
Crawford and Rocco Baldelli."

"This team's going to win, and I wanted to be a part of it," says
Huff, who will bat third or fourth this year, with 22-year-old
outfielders Crawford (55 steals last year) and Baldelli (184
hits, 27 steals) setting the table ahead of him. "It's easy to go
somewhere else, be a part of something that's already built and
win a World Series. It's going to be special when we win, like it
was when the Bucs won the Super Bowl. They were patient and
developed their own talent."

When Huff was six and living in Mineral Wells, Texas, his father
was shot and killed when he intervened during an argument at the
apartment complex where he worked. Aubrey's mother, Fonda, raised
him and his younger sister, Angela, and was determined to provide
for them as well as she could. On his way home from a Texas
Rangers game as a nine-year-old, Aubrey told his mom that he
wanted a batting cage so that he could chase his dream of being a
big leaguer. She paid $2,500 for the cage and had it set up in
the backyard. After a year or so, he persuaded his mom to buy a
pitching machine and some rudimentary lighting. Day after day
he'd hit, and some nights, too, all the way through high school.
"I didn't have much of a night life," Huff says. "I was a pretty
shy dude. Usually it was just me out there alone, hitting. That's
where I molded my swing. Without that cage, I wouldn't be here now."

A lefthanded hitter who likes to go the other way, Huff, 27, was
recalled by Tampa Bay in May 2002 and has started 275 consecutive
games since. He split time in rightfield and at first and third
base last year, but he'll mostly DH this season because the Devil
Rays signed free-agent outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. and acquired
first baseman Tino Martinez from the Cardinals. Since the 2002
All-Star break only Albert Pujols of St. Louis (306) and Vernon
Wells of Toronto (304) have more hits than Huff's 301, and only
Garret Anderson of Anaheim (124) and Manny Ramirez of Boston and
Magglio Ordonez of the White Sox (121) have more extra-base hits
than Huff's 120. "He's a doubles machine," says manager Lou
Piniella. "He's as natural a hitter as you'll see."

"So many guys in the game are pull-conscious," Huff says. "I
don't try to make it too hard. See ball, hit ball. I'm happy to
just rap a change to leftfield. If the pitcher throws it soft, I
hit it soft. I don't guess very much. If it's an 0-and-2 count, I
never want to think change, because then I'll never catch up to
the fastball."

Of course, all the hitting by Huff and the rest of the Devil Rays
will carry the club only so far. This organization has to find
some pitching. Even Piniella notes that "most of the top
prospects in our system are position players." And the team
doesn't have the money to be able to sign a marquee free-agent
starter.

That's what makes this season so important in Tampa Bay. The
Devil Rays need to start strong and hope for a boost in
attendance from the league-low 13,070 average of last season.
They need the extra revenue to chase after quality pitching next
winter. "This year we divided our [free-agent] spending among a
lot of low-cost players," Piniella says. "Next year we hope to be
able to take a little more money and maybe try to sign two or
three players who could really help us immediately." --P.K.

COLOR PHOTO: NICK WASS/AP HAPPY LANDING The power-hitting Huff was given a rich new contract as a reward for his breakout season. COLOR PHOTO: EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES MARTINEZ

IN FACT

Last year Victor Zambrano became the first pitcher managed by Lou
Piniella to walk 100 batters (106).

ENEMY LINES
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Devil Rays

"This club has a whole new attitude: These guys bust their asses
because Lou Piniella demands it. They should pick up 10 more wins
than they had a year ago, but they don't have a chance to finish
anywhere but last in this division.... If any players their age
[22] have a chance to be great, Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli
do. You can see they've improved a lot from last year in every
aspect. Between them, not many balls are going to fall in the
outfield.... Jose Cruz was a great pickup--the best rightfielder
this team has had.... It improved its defense when it got Rey
Sanchez to play second, but he's not going to give you much
offensively, and he's injury-prone. Tino Martinez will be a big
plus, especially in the clubhouse.... I don't like the pitching.
Victor Zambrano and Jeremi Gonzalez are solid at the top of the
rotation, but there are huge question marks behind them. Zambrano
has improved his command and can win 15 games.... The bullpen is
thin. Danys Baez has good stuff, but he hasn't proved to be a
competent closer."

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2003 statistics

BATTING ORDER

LF Crawford
SS Lugo
CF Baldelli
DH Huff
RF Cruz
1B Martinez
3B Blum
C Hall
2B Sanchez

ROCCO BALDELLI
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 38 .289 11 78 27

JOSE CRUZ JR. [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 126 .250 20 68 5

REY SANCHEZ [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 354 .250 0 23 2

TINO MARTINEZ [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 197 .273 15 69 1

TOBY HALL
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 208 .253 12 47 0

GEOFF BLUM [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 248 .262 10 52 0

JULIO LUGO
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 148 .271 15 55 12

CARL CRAWFORD
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 27 .281 5 54 55

BENCH

ROBERT FICK [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 225 .269 11 80 1

DAMIAN ROLLS
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 257 .255 7 46 11

DESIGNATED HITTER

AUBREY HUFF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 50 .311 34 107 2

ROTATION

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

RH Victor Zambrano 75 12 10 6.4 1.44 4.21
RH Jeremi Gonzalez 102 6 11 6.3 1.28 3.91
LH Mark Hendrickson 219 9 9 5.3 1.56 5.51
[New acquisition]
RH Doug Waechter 162 3 2 6.6 1.25 3.31
RH Paul Abbott 238 1 2 5.3 1.53 5.29
[New acquisition]

BULLPEN

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH Danys Baez 116 2 9 25 1.16 3.81
[New acquisition]
RH Lance Carter 121 7 5 26 1.15 4.33
LH Trever Miller 279 2 2 0 1.41 4.61
[New acquisition]

2003 RECORD
63-99
fifth in AL East

MANAGER
Lou Piniella
second season with Tampa Bay

(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 142)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)