Difficult decisions ahead for Rays’ Sternberg

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Existing as the Tampa Bay Rays requires foresight with a healthy dose of optimism to make their challenges appear manageable.

They’re one of the major leagues’ greatest success stories since 2008, a franchise that has evolved from an American League East also-ran to a contender, but each year presents new tests of their ability to preserve this standard. 

Two issues will go far in determining the Rays’ direction in coming years, both on the field and on their bottom line. First, there’s the future of left-hander David Price, who will make $10,125,000 this season and remains under Tampa Bay’s control through the 2015 campaign; he’s aware of both starting pitching’s rising cost and the Rays’ limitations because of a small-market reality. Second, the future of their home in the Tampa Bay region, whether it’s in St. Petersburg or nearby Hillsborough County or elsewhere, despite a lease that binds them to the maligned Tropicana Field until 2027. 
So it was little surprising that Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg, in a visit to Charlotte Sports Park on a bright Sunday afternoon, spent the better part of a 10-minute question-and-answer session addressing the looming clouds ahead. Creativity has been the Rays’ strongest attribute since he gained control of the franchise in October 2005. 
With Price’s future and the stadium situation unclear, he will be required to use such a trait again. 
On Price: “There is no question that we could handle a contract like David’s, but what are you able to put around him? Right now, correctly, David is focused on this season. We’re focused on this season, and I think, speculatively, it really is way too early for people to be focused on what is three years from now, four years from now.” 
On the stadium: “The mayor (St. Petersburg’s Bill Foster) and I had a meeting. It was a nice, cordial conversation, and we’ll see. I’m optimistic. Nobody wants to hear me talking about stadium things, so we’ll let the mayor and I try to handle that and everybody else can focus on what’s important, which is baseball.” 
The amount of baseball success the Rays experience this season, of course, will be determined partly by how well Price grows on the mound. Both Rays management and the returning American League Cy Young Award winner have expressed a desire to keep their union strong, if only dollar signs weren’t part of their equation. 
Yet this is a high-stakes, high-rewards industry, and Price doesn’t work for orange slices. He and the Rays will continue to compare his value among some of the game’s wealthiest arms: Seattle Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez inked a seven-year, $175 million extension in February; right-hander Zack Greinke signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers last December for $147 million over six years; and Detroit Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander agreed to a five-year, $80 million extension in 2010.
Appropriately, Price will be measured against the game’s greats throughout this season. Could he become baseball’s first $200 million pitcher? It’s possible. His value will rise if he matches or exceeds last season’s 20-5 record with a 2.56 ERA in 31 appearances. Consequently, Tampa Bay could be presented with the difficult choice of either retaining the young star or trading him to receive maximum value. 
The Rays packaged workhorse right-hander James Shields last December in a six-player deal that served as a bet that promising talents, outfield prospect Wil Myers and right-hander Jake Odorizzi, will produce in time. Last November, the club made a six-year, $100 million extension work for third baseman Evan Longoria. But Sternberg admitted Sunday those figures were “gargantuan” and “extraordinary” for any team.  
Price, for his part, wants fair payment. He likely won’t choose sentimental over true value. And why would he, especially if he progresses as one of the sport’s best arms? 
“I do understand what all is going on in the realm of baseball,” Price said Sunday. “I do know what the going rate for starting pitching is these days. I don’t want to sell myself short.”
That may be the case, but how many people will watch Price work on his home mound? Attendance remains a sour subject in the Tampa Bay market. It led to a strong statement from Major League Baseball in January that highlighted a discrepancy: Despite a 90-72 record in 2012 – the Rays’ third consecutive season with at least 90 victories – Tampa Bay finished last in attendance with 1,559,681 fans drawn. (The league average was about 2.5 million.)
The total suggests a number of things about a complex environment: The Rays can contend time and time again, but unless the status quo changes, even a team that has produced three playoff berths in the past five years won’t attract turnstile figures fitting for its performance in the standings. There’s possible blame on Tropicana Field’s location, about a 30-minute drive from the region’s population center in Hillsborough County. 
There’s possible blame on the building itself, one of the most criticized in the major leagues. There’s possible blame on the region’s demographics, a melting pot of potential customers with many holding rooting interests — New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, etc. — grounded elsewhere. 
“The attendance, everyone knows the number,” Sternberg said. “Last is last so we’re anticipating an improvement on that. We really don’t have any goals. We don’t try to set any goals. We wanted to be average in attendance and well above average in on-field performance, and we’re right now settling for well-above average in on-field performance, and that’s the most important thing.” 
For now it is, even with new tests to solve. For now, as they’ve done before, the Rays will continue to work to win — then wonder about what comes next. 
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.