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Get the matches Erma, time to light the hot stove.

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Today unofficially marked the "hot stove" portion of the 2006 and 2007 seasons in Major League Baseball. I suspect, as has been the case for eight of the past nine seasons, the Rays' "hot stove" will once again be more like a Bunsen burner or Coleman camp stove (not the big one, the one that keeps a pot of coffee hot).

This is the time of the year where fans of every team start wondering who's coming in to bolster their favorite team from contender/pretender to World's Champion. As for Cardinals fans, if they remember it's been 25 years between trophies, they might wonder how to keep the team together for another run next season. For Rays fans, it's a quick check on when the Lightning and Bucs are playing next.

In Tampa Bay, the hot stove season garners as much of a buzz as the debate over who should be in charge of the New York Knicks. If you're a little slow, that means not much. After years of Chuck Lamar's "plan" to hire over-the-hill athletes in the off-season for warm and fuzzy stories and not necessarily wins, the new regime is trying to change that. They're not (yet) trying with key signings in key positions that could take this dreadful team a step closer to .500, and maybe better to bring in bigger free agents down the line. No, the new guys are name-dropping.


Let me provide a name that should cause Rays fans to fall out of their seats: Juan Guzman. Now ask yourself this; what is the difference between Guzman and Mulder? Other than Guzman's Soul-Glo jerry curl, not much. Here you have two pitchers who have had glorious moments in their careers only to slowly grind to a halt with arm injuries. Guzman gimped on a bad shoulder for three years, yet somehow continued to get paid for it. He capped it off with the ultimate smack in the face to common sense, his contract with the Rays in 2000 where he lasted 1 2/3 innings. The team recently FINALLY got him off the books.

Mulder is 29, and could miss most or all of 2007 due to his shoulder surgery this year. So that means the Rays, if they're oh so lucky, could have a 30-year-old expensive question mark on the mound. It's just like Denny Neagle, but without the horse-faced hooker. While I am no psychic, and can't accurately claim Mulder is the next Guzman, I can say the rumors worry me a bit.

I have to credit Andrew Friedman and company for actually saying they're interested in bringing in a big-named arm, even if the odds are stacked against the Rays in acquiring said player. But while Friedman says he's better prepared for this year's GM meetings (which I guess it's good to know he was clueless last year), someone may want to send him a list of the available free agent pitchers. Mark Mulder is not on the top of that list.

Mulder's former teammate Barry Zito, and fellow decent arm from north of Oakland, Jason Schmidt, are the two biggest names this winter. Knowing full well that the Rays aren't in that market yet, take a look at the guys who are decent and a bit pricey, but not impossible to bring here:

Adam Eaton
Ted Lilly
Gil Meche
Vicente Padilla
Andy Pettite
Jeff Suppan
Jeff Weaver
Hell... even Steve Trachsel was able to keep the Mets together for a while.

These are the players who would command anywhere around $8-$10 million per year-- the price you pay for a GOOD veteran arm. Throwing money on a post-surgery Mulder, even if it is only four or five million, is a risky move. Even scarier, it reeks of what Lamar did in the past.

Just one of these major arms should help stabilize a young and promising rotation. I'd prefer two since I can only count on Scott Kazmir, Jae Seo, and James Shields, but I guess I can live with one if you keep Casey "Wild Fling" Fossum in the top five.

In case you didn't notice the Rays could use a couple of GOOD PROVEN relief pitchers. Not Mariano Rivera... but guys who can go in to a situation knowing exactly what to do instead of counting on guys who had their heads handed to them two out of every three relief appearances. The team could also use a first baseman (they have one if they take Wiggy up on arbitration), a shortstop who wasn't in AA last June, and a real third baseman would be nice. Rays fans dream of a management group that is aggressive AND smart! Wow! Save money and put together a good team! It could happen!

And Jessica Simpson could sit on my face, but I'm not counting on it.

And niether should Rays fans count on much action from the NDRO this hot stove season. Even when they talk of Mulder, they talk about how he could be ready by 2008. It took me three months and two re-orders to get my bank checks right, but the calendar that comes with the ledger in my checkbook still says 2007 falls between 2006 and 2008.

I was never expecting an improvement of 30 wins in one season, but I also wasn't expecting the NDRO to continue to write off 2007 like it won't matter. Significant changes need to be made with this team now to at least get it closer to .500 next season. While .500 isn't the ultimate goal, anything close to 81 wins is a major improvement for this team. And more importantly, it's another step closer to a playoff team.

The Rays want you to believe you can't just improve overnight, and they're right. With that thinking though, why do they believe another ho-hum somewhere around 65-win team will do just that between 2007 and 2008?

Time to turn up my Coleman camp stove. Staring at the blue flame is far more exciting than waiting for the Rays to finally build a winner.