The Tampa Bay Devil Rays released Greg Vaughn yesterday, giving up on their highest-paid player.

Tampa Bay will ask waivers Monday on Vaughn for the purpose of his unconditional release. If he isn't claimed by Wednesday, and there is virtually no chance he will be, the Devil Rays must pay his guaranteed $9.25 million salary this season.

Vaughn, 37, was in the final season of a four-year, $34 million contract. The Devil Rays would be responsible for paying $5 million of the remaining salary this year, with the rest deferred at 3 percent interest.

"The direction of the club is youth," General Manager Chuck LaMar said. "When Greg Vaughn signed that contract, we were heading in a different direction. We were headed toward a competitive, veteran type of team until the young kids are ready."

Vaughn said he was relieved when LaMar and Manager Lou Piniella told him of the decision before yesterday's game against Pittsburgh.

"I don't have to go out there every single time now and feel like I have to drive in three runs or get a hit every single time," Vaughn said.

Vaughn, who has hit .217 in 14 games this spring, hit 50 homers for San Diego in 1998 but has slumped badly since.

"We gave him a lot of opportunity here this spring," Piniella said. "If he wants to still play, I hope he catches on with somebody else. I'd like to see him get to do what he wants to do because he's a good man and he's worked hard here in camp."

He missed part of last season with an injured shoulder, hitting .163 with eight homers and 29 RBI in 69 games.

With 352 career homers, Vaughn ranks 11th among active players. But in three seasons with Tampa Bay, he hit just .226 with 60 homers and 185 RBI.

* YANKEES: David Wells declined to take part in a photo shoot for Sports Illustrated that featured New York's starting pitchers and owner George Steinbrenner.

Wells was asked through the team's media relations department to be in the photo, intended for the cover of the magazine's next edition. The photo features Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Jeff Weaver and Jose Contreras.

"Who can tell?" Steinbrenner said when asked where Wells was. "I really don't care."

Wells was fined $100,000 by the Yankees on March 10 because the club said his autobiography, "Perfect I'm Not! Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches & Baseball," tarnished the team's image.

The left-hander did not comment when asked about the photo shoot. Wells was upset several years ago about a Sports Illustrated story that discussed his weight. . . .

Clemens was officially picked to start the Yankees' opener at Toronto on March 31.

Clemens, who has said this likely will be his final season, is seven wins from becoming the 21st pitcher to reach 300 wins. It will be his third straight Opening Day start and his fourth in five seasons with the Yankees. Clemens will be starting his 13th opener overall.

* ROCKIES: Denny Neagle had no trouble with his sore left elbow in a bullpen session, but his status as the Opening Day starter remains unclear.

Neagle threw for nearly 10 minutes, working his way through all of his pitches without pain in his second bullpen session in three days.

"He threw all of his pitches, his breaking pitches and changeups, and he came away feeling very, very encouraged by it," Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca said.

But even with the progress, the Rockies might hold Neagle back from his scheduled start on Opening Day to give him more time to heal and build his strength back.

* EXPOS: Montreal ace Javier Vazquez could miss the team's season opener because of a strained calf muscle. He was hurt in Friday's start against Florida, and the Expos estimated he will be sidelined five to 14 days. Montreal already figured to start the season without No. 2 starter Orlando Hernandez, who has tendinitis in his right rotator cuff.

* PHILLIES: David Bell hit three home runs, two off struggling Casey Fossum, and had five RBI as Philadelphia beat the Boston Red Sox, 11-6.