Expansion duo comes out swinging for the fences Goal is to build winner, not just team, in draft

November 18, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PHOENIX -- Major League Baseball will celebrate the birth of two new franchises today, when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks select 35 players each in the sport's second expansion draft of the 1990s.

It was just five years ago that baseball expanded to 28 teams with the entry of the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies, but the conditions under which the two newest organizations build their rosters are decidedly different -- in part because of the quick success achieved by their immediate predecessors.

The Rockies reached the playoffs in only their third year of existence and the Marlins just became the fastest modern franchise to win the World Series, which can only heighten the expectations of fans in both expansion cities.

There was a time -- before the advent of free agency and the rapid escalation of baseball economics -- that fans in a new major-league city might have expected to wait eight or 10 years to see their club grow into a contender. Now, the huge cost of each expansion franchise and the necessity of public stadium financing creates tremendous pressure to accelerate the growth process.

"Our philosophy is to be as competitive as we can as soon as we can," Devil Rays owner Vince Namoli said yesterday. "We've said our modus operandi is to do it through player development, but certainly we want to give our fans in Tampa Bay a winning product in as short a time as possible."

Both new clubs have solid financial backing, something that became apparent last year when the Devil Rays gave huge signing bonuses to high school prospects Bobby Seay and Matt White and the Diamondbacks gave $10 million to college star Travis Lee. The deep-pocketed Diamondbacks went a giant step farther yesterday when they announced the signing of veteran shortstop Jay Bell to a five-year contract reportedly worth $34 million.

No one doubted that Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo, who also heads the NBA Phoenix Suns, would be willing to spend money to put a quality team on the field. But the way he has stepped up to the plate -- financially speaking -- has raised some eyebrows. He arrives as an instant large-market club with a new TTC stadium nearing completion, and he isn't apologizing for anything he has done to position the Diamondbacks for quick success.

"I think I've been quoted as saying everyone ought to look in the mirror before anyone casts stones, because we are the new kids on the block, and we have a plan and we plan to stick to it," Colangelo said during a news conference yesterday at the site of the draft. "And whatever we do is not going to be something that has to be torn down and sold. So we're going to try and do this the appropriate way."

Colangelo seemed to be making reference to the Marlins, who committed $89 million to free agents last winter and won the world championship, but now are dismantling that club to cope with disappointing revenues.

"We'll decide how we spend and how much we spend, but I just find it interesting when I see the payrolls out there and people worrying about what we're going to do. We'll go about our business and we won't question what they do," Colangelo said.

Diamondbacks manager Buck Showalter didn't flinch when he was asked whether the organization feels added pressure to sign big-name players and field a competitive team quickly because of the success of the Rockies and Marlins.

"We don't have to sign a player to lessen or heighten the expectations we have," he said, "and the Marlins or the Rockies didn't have to get to the playoffs in a couple of years or win the world championship in a certain number of years to change the standard we hold ourselves to.

"Jay Bell is a piece of the puzzle. We brought that up many times while we were working on the draft. We've looking for pieces of the puzzle. At what time all those pieces come together is yet to be seen."

The draft process will be conducted much like the 1992 draft. Each club has submitted a list of 15 players who are not eligible to be drafted. Every other player who has been under contract for three seasons (four seasons if signed before age 19) and anyone who has appeared in a major-league game is eligible to be selected.

Each existing club will lose at least two players and no more than three, and each time a team loses a player, that club may protect three more. So, in theory, every franchise will lose its 16th and 20th-best player, and 14 franchises will lose their 24th-best player. The Orioles, who are not considered to have great minor-league depth, do not appear to be in great danger of losing a third player.

They do, however, appear to be in danger of losing promising pitching prospect Julio Moreno, who was the guy on the bubble when the front office decided not to gamble on leaving first baseman Rafael Palmeiro unprotected, and perhaps left-hander Rick Krivda or reliever Alan Mills.

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