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.”