Rays owner excited about upcoming season

Stuart Sternberg doesn’t want to place unrealistic expectations
on his cost-conscious Tampa Bay Rays.

Even after an offseason in which he approved spending that
boosted one of baseball’s lowest payrolls by more than 50 percent,
the owner is reluctant to say he’d be disappointed if the club does
anything less than win enough games to make the playoffs for the
fourth time in five years.

That speaks more to how difficult it is to keep pace with teams
that have deeper wallets than what Sternberg feels the Rays are
capable of accomplishing after bolstering the offense with the
addition of free agents Luke Scott and Carlos Pena and adding
veteran relievers Burke Badenhop and Fernando Rodney to the
bullpen.

”Our expectations are that we have a very very good team this
year. Ideally you’d like to say the best team we’ve put out. You
never really know until we go out there,” Sternberg said Tuesday
during a visit to spring training.

”We’d like to win a lot of games. I can’t say if I expect to
win 80 or 100,” he added. ”You can never expect to make the
playoffs. I don’t think any team does that other than one or two of
them.”

The Rays unexpectedly stretched a tight budget this winter,
boosting payroll from around $42 million in 2010 to about $65
million this year. Scott and Pena, the franchise’s career home run
leader who’s back in Tampa Bay after spending last season with the
Chicago Cubs, signed one-year deals that account for $13 million of
that increase.

While Sternberg said he didn’t anticipate the payroll climbing
by more than $20 million, he nevertheless felt compelled as a
competitor and a fan of the game to spend more to give the team a
better chance of remaining competitive with the big spending New
York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the AL East, arguably baseball’s
toughest division.

”Everybody knows the challenges in the division. You can never
assume you’re going -or even think you’re going – to make it into
the postseason given the heft and the abilities of the teams we’re
competing with,” Sternberg said.

”If I was spending three-X what we are now, I would tell you I
have an expectation to make the playoffs,” the owner said. ”But
to be in the American League East and spend 60 some odd million,
which is still a 50 percent bump from last year, I have no right
… to expect we’ll make the playoffs. I do expect we’re going to
win a lot of baseball games.”

Sternberg reiterated his belief that what Tampa Bay has been
able to accomplish with limited financial resources – win two AL
East titles, make it to the World Series in 2008 and the playoffs
three of the past four seasons – can’t be sustained long-term
without eventually getting out of Tropicana Field and into a new
ballpark that will boost revenue.

While he’s encouraged that there has been dialogue among region
politicians and business leaders about the need for a new stadium
that ”I also think it’s going slower than it can be.”

”We’ve got to figure something out. This can’t go on for
decades,” said Sternberg, who took control of the team in 2005 and
has helped transform it from a club that had never finished with a
winning record into a championship contender.

”Why you want more revenue is to give yourself a better
opportunity to compete. We are competing without the revenue. That
is not an endless cycle,” the owner said. ”I don’t mind the
difficulty of doing it. I like the challenge. That’s all fine and
dandy, but you want to have a ray of hope that we can sustain this.
And we have to this point. It’s been very fortuitous, we’ve been
very fortunate.”

Sternberg said he remains optimistic that baseball can succeed
in the Tampa Bay area. He the willingness to boost the payroll this
winter ”shows the faith we have in this market.”

”If I didn’t think it would work, we wouldn’t be spending what
we’re spending here to win,” the owner said. ”I think winning …
and continued success gives us the best chance to ultimately put us
in a position to have this sustainable.”