PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — 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.”