Alex Sanchez is the first player to be publicly identified under baseball’s tougher drug policy, and he’ll begin a 10-day suspension when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays open the season against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Sanchez said he was surprised by the suspension, adding that he uses milkshakes and multivitamins to build his energy. He blamed the positive test on something he bought over the counter.
“I’m going to fight it, because I’ve never taken steroids or anything like that,” said Sanchez, who was released by the Detroit Tigers in mid-March and signed by the Devil Rays.
Baseball officials and the players’ union agreed they would not disclose the exact substance for which a player tests positive. Sanchez said he was drug tested while he was with the Tigers. He signed with Tampa Bay on March 19, five days after being released by Detroit.
Sanchez’s absence will make it even tougher for the Devil Rays to keep pace early on in the AL East, led by the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox.
In a division featuring two of the biggest-spending teams in the league, the frugal Devil Rays and Blue Jays have found it tough to compete. With economics in the AL East having remained largely unchanged, they find themselves playing the underdog roll again as they open a three-game series.
The AL East is expected to be dominated again by the high-spending New York Yankees and Red Sox, who met in the ALCS last season.
Toronto and Tampa Bay, meanwhile, have two of the league’s lowest payrolls and both finished over 30 games behind the first-place Yankees. The Blue Jays’ payroll is currently is about $50 million—a quarter of the Yankees’ $200 million.
Tampa Bay escaped last place in 2004 for the first time in its seven-year history, finishing three games ahead of Toronto. With a payroll of a little more than $30 million, it will be hard for the Devil Rays to continue their progress.
Tampa Bay went 9-29 against New York and Boston last season, and 58-65 against everybody else.
Ricciardi doesn’t have to pay slugger Carlos Delgado, whose $18.5 million salary took up more than 35 percent of the payroll last season. Delgado signed with the Florida Marlins as a free agent, leaving a big hole in the middle of the lineup.
The loss of Delgado means a change in style on offense.
“We’re not going to rely on the home run as much,” Blue Jays outfielder Frank Catalanotto said. “We’re going to hit and run more, we’re going to steal more bases and I think it’s a good lineup, a pesky lineup. We don’t have a lot of guys who strike out. We’ll miss Carlos, we’re going to miss that big home run power but I think it’s going to be a lineup that will give pitchers a hard time.”
Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella feel his team has gotten better, with a core of promising young players like Carl Crawford, Aubrey Huff and Rocco Baldelli as well as a talented but inexperienced starting rotation.
“There are a lot of things to like here,” said Piniella, beginning his third season with Tampa Bay.
“We’re much closer than we were two years ago. Are we there yet? No. But to me, there’s more light at the end of the tunnel than two years ago.”
After improving from 55 to 63 victories in Piniella’s first season, the Devil Rays won a franchise-best 70 games.
With center fielder Baldelli expected to be sidelined by a knee injury until July, Piniella plans to play Crawford in left field, where he was an All-Star last season, and use Huff in right. Sanchez figured to be the opening-day center fielder, but backup Chris Singleton should start after missing all of last season because of injury.
Crawford was rewarded for a breakout season in which he hit .296 and led the AL in stolen bases for the second straight season with a $15.25 million, four-year contract that could be worth up to $32.5 million over six seasons.
2004 STANDINGS: Blue Jays - 5th place, 33 1/2 GB, AL East. Devil Rays - 4th place, 30 1/2 GB, AL East.
BLUE JAYS PROBABLE STARTER: Roy Halladay (8-8, 4.20 ERA). Toronto expects Halladay to be healthy and hopes he can return to his Cy Young form of 2003. Halladay had two stints on the disabled list last season because of a tired right shoulder after going 22-7 with a 3.25 ERA in 2003. The right-hander was 1-1 with a 3.92 ERA in 20 2-3 innings in spring training. He is 3-3 with a 4.11 ERA in 13 appearances against Tampa Bay.
DEVIL RAYS PROBABLE STARTER: Dewon Brazelton (6-8, 4.77 ERA). Brazelton, the third overall pick in the 2001 draft, showed promise last season. The right-hander went 6-3 with a 2.90 ERA at home. He was outstanding in three starts against Toronto last season, going 2-0 record with a 1.93 ERA. Brazelton is 2-2 with a 4.25 ERA in five career starts against the Blue Jays.
2004 OFFENSIVE LEADERS: Blue Jays - Vernon Wells, .272 avg., 23 HRs and 82 runs; Eric Hinske 69 RBIs; Alex Rios, 15 SBs. Devil Rays - Huff, .297 avg., 29 HRs and 104 RBIs; Crawford 104 runs and 59 SBs.
2004 SEASON SERIES: Devil Rays, 10-8.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Blue Jays - Manager John Gibbons, who guided Toronto to a 20-30 record last season after Carlos Tosca was fired, returns with just a one-year contract. … 1B Eric Hinske is batting .214 (3-for-14) against Brazelton. … OF Wells batted .206 in 63 at-bats in spring training. Devil Rays - Tampa Bay ranked last in the AL in hitting (.258) last season. … RHP Danys Baez converted 30 of 33 save opportunities last season. … There are 15 players on Tampa Bay’s 25-man roster who were not there in the opener last year.
2004 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Blue Jays - 27-53 on the road; Devil Rays - 41-39 at home.