Tuesday, November 18, 1997
No growing pains for new teams

The Cincinnati Enquirer

PHOENIX - If the Florida Marlins have taught us anything, it is that there's no reason to wait.

Expansion clubs need not be nurtured slowly. They can go from conception to championship in less time than it takes some people to program a VCR. They still start from scratch, but it is a running start now. What they can't bother to build they can easily buy.

''Expansion teams aren't expansion teams any more,'' Reds General Manager Jim Bowden said Monday. ''The small-market clubs are. (Marlins owner) Wayne Huizenga proved if you've got a lot of money to spend, you can win.''

The Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays begin taking shape today with 35 selections apiece in baseball's expansion draft. Short-term, they are going to be saddled with some inferior baggage. Long-term, their success is probably preordained.

Both the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays begin their baseball lives with sufficient funds to contend quickly. Monday, the Diamondbacks signed free-agent shortstop Jay Bell to a five-year contract worth $34 million, more money than the Reds have ever committed to anyone. The sign of the times is a dollar sign. The growing pains endured by previous expansion teams are no longer necessary.

''From what I know about Arizona, they could be good next year,'' Reds manager Jack McKeon said. ''If Florida can do it in five (years), they can do it in four. If they have the money. Anybody can do it with the money.''

Free agency has expanded the pool of players available to expansion teams and also changed the profile of the players clubs protect. Instead of a menu filled with utility infielders, fringe outfielders and sore-armed pitchers - the usual suspects of previous expansion drafts - the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays will be able to choose some front-line players if they are prepared to pay their salaries. How much they might spend is privileged information.

How much they can spend is considerable. Excluding obstructed view seating, the Devil Rays' ticket prices start at $10 and go as high as $195. The best seats in the Diamondbacks' new ballpark are priced at $50. Demand, in both places, has been intense.

''It's kind of a moving target,'' Arizona owner Jerry Colangelo said of his projected player payroll. ''What we do feel we have the capability of doing is pulling the trigger when we believe it's appropriate.''

The Reds, meanwhile, can barely afford to pull the trigger on a cap pistol. Bowden is still trying to trim payroll and says one of the players he did not protect in the expansion draft would have been worth keeping except for his salary. (Best guess: second baseman Bret Boone. Bowden wasn't saying.)

''You have to take one step back to go three steps forward,'' McKeonsaid. ''This is the time we have to go one step back.''

McKeon has been there before, and more than once. He was with the Kansas City Royals when that franchise started in 1969. Reviewing rosters from that draft Monday, McKeon cringed at the names.

The Royals' first five outfielders were Pat Kelly, Joe Keough, Scott Northey, Bob Oliver and Steve Whitaker. Ouch.

''The best player of that group was probably. . . . I don't know,'' McKeon said. ''There wasn't much. I'll tell you that.''

The Royals are the only expansion team to date to draft a future Hall of Famer. But knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm was 45 years old when Kansas City claimed him, and he would never pitch for that franchise.

In 1968, two San Diego sportswriters pleaded with Padres management to hasten the end of their expansion draft ordeal. They were invited to make a selection on behalf of the club, and chose Atlanta's Cito Gaston. It proved to be one of the club's more prescient picks.

Today's expansion draft is much more serious business. The Devil Rays have arranged for their ''war room'' to be screened for surveillance equipment each morning. Draft list leaks have been effectively plugged by a $250,000 fine.

Everyone understands that these expansion teams will be playing for keeps and not for laughs.

EXPANSION DRAFT TODAY Associated Press coverage