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Sternberg adds new direction

MARC TOPKIN
Published June 20, 2004

PHOENIX - They're not the same old Devil Rays anymore.

And that's not just because they've been winning for a change.

More than ever before, the Rays seem to have a plan.

The future is more than just next week or next month. There are discussions underway to sign their top young players to long-term deals. There are talks to define their primary needs (think pitching) and possibly address them as the trading deadline approaches. There are conversations to establish budgets for future years which will allow them to make better decisions now.

Not everyone may see it this way, but the impact of new general partner Stuart Sternberg is obvious.

Managing general partner Vince Naimoli is still in charge - and he's quick to tell anyone who thinks otherwise. But for whatever reason, maybe because he is willing to spend more of his money, maybe because he has a better deal, Sternberg seems to have succeeded where other partners didn't in improving the way the Rays do business.

Agent Scott Boras, after a Thursday meeting with top Rays officials that included Naimoli, general manager Chuck LaMar and new director of strategic planning Matt Silverman, a Sternberg associate, noted "a new disposition with the influx of new ownership." Others who have had recent business with the Rays have made similar observations.

Things are not going to change dramatically. The Rays aren't going to double or triple their payroll next season, or suddenly start competing for the biggest free agents. LaMar and manager Lou Piniella are still going to have to try to do more with less.

But things are going to change.

Improvements will be subtle, some even under the radar. Sternberg isn't hanging around much, but he knows, and is learning, exactly what is going on. Establishing better business practices will allow for better baseball decisions.

With this group, change is good.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES: There is considerable merit to the idea of signing young core players to long-term contracts. The Rays talked last week to reps for Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, may do the same with others such as Doug Waechter, and are interested in further extending Aubrey Huff's three-year contract.

Such deals are touted as being about keeping the team together but are really about money. They give the Rays cost-certainty during the players' arbitration-eligible years and could allow them to buy out a year or two of free agency, though it will be expensive.

But to consider doing the same with top minor-league prospects B.J. Upton and Joey Gathright is unusual, if not unprecedented - and a lot more complicated and risky.

To make it worthwhile, they Rays would have to be talking about seven- or eight-year deals for players who have never been in the big leagues. That puts the team in a position of relying heavily on projections (and hoping heavily against injury) and makes the players choose between sure money now or the potential for more - maybe much more - later.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: With Boras as his agent, the gut feeling is that Baldelli probably will be the toughest of the group to sign long-term. His spring training contract renewal doesn't help. ... In the foreword to Don Zimmer's new book, The Zen of Zim: Baseballs, Beanballs and Bosses, Piniella writes: "I never told him this, but I really hired him as a bodyguard." ... The Rays wives' annual baby goods drive is next Sunday. ... Dave Magadan loves coaching in San Diego but the thought of coming home to the Rays, and working for Piniella, his godfather and cousin, has come up: "I think about it more when people ask me about it." ... And don't think other Tampa products, such as Arizona outfielder Luis Gonzalez, haven't heard noticed the good times Tino Martinez is having.

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