By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
The man who has owned the Devil Rays from their inception is expected to step aside early.
BOSTON - Vince Naimoli's controversial reign as boss of the Devil Rays could be over at the end of the season.
An agreement has been reached to accelerate the timetable for Stuart Sternberg to replace Naimoli as managing general partner and assume control of the baseball team sometime after the Oct. 2 season finale.
The exact date of the transfer has not been agreed upon, and the deal could be delayed, or even collapse, if one of the parties were to seek a change in terms. In that case, the transfer of power could be pushed back until January 2007, which was the date agreed on when Sternberg bought about 50 percent of the team in May 2004.
But Sternberg, a 46-year-old New York investor, is apparently eager to start implementing his business strategy. Enough so that he is willing to pay Naimoli - perhaps millions - to walk away early. There are also provisions for Sternberg and his partners to buy out Naimoli's 15 percent of the team, though Naimoli, 67, could also keep his share or seek to sell elsewhere.
Sternberg, in Boston to watch the Rays this week, has refrained from speaking publicly about the team. "I have no comment," he said Tuesday. Naimoli previously has declined comment on all related issues and did not return phone messages Tuesday. He has told associates he has no plans to go anywhere. However, talk of the deal has been circulating from Tropicana Field to New York.
Sternberg's ascension to managing partner would be the first step in what is expected to be a significant overhaul of the organization.
Among the possible changes:
Manager Lou Piniella, who is signed through 2006, is unlikely to return for his final season. Piniella's salary ($4.4-million in 2006 plus around $1.6-million in deferred payments) and his public comments critical of the owners' commitment to winning make him unappealing to the ownership group. Piniella has also indicated a preference to manage a team with a better chance to win. Talks have already been held to discuss a negotiated settlement that would allow Piniella to work elsewhere or sit out the 2006 season. He could also be traded to another team. Piniella, however, declined to comment on the situation. "I don't deal in speculation," he said.
General manager Chuck LaMar, also signed through 2006, is expected to be fired or reassigned to a less powerful position in what eventually would be a massive restructuring of the baseball operations department. An experienced general manager, such as former Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker, and other executives may be brought in. Eventually Andrew Friedman, a Sternberg associate who is currently director of player development, is expected to assume a significant role.
Matt Silverman, a Sternberg associate who is currently vice president of planning and development, is expected to assume a powerful and prominent role in running the team on a daily basis. There are expected to be numerous changes in personnel and/or assignments on the business side of the team as well.
The Rays' major-league low payroll of about $29-million may be increased slightly, to at least the mid $30-million range (or even a little higher) next season, but the focus will be on building a team that can contend in 2007 or 2008. As a result, one or more of the higher-salaried players - Aubrey Huff, Julio Lugo, Danys Baez and Toby Hall - may be traded for young major-leaguers or elite minor-leaguers. And top prospects such as B.J. Upton and Delmon Young are likely to remain in the minor leagues next season.
There will be a significant effort to repair the team's relationship with area fans and business/civic leaders who became disenfranchised during the team's 10-year existence. There have been discussions, for example, with Outback founder Bob Basham, a member of the original ownership group who sold his shares to Sternberg. An increased charitable presence is also expected throughout the community.
There are likely to be major improvements at Tropicana Field and a willingness to discuss all kinds of changes, including rebranding, or even renaming, the team. The team is expected to be operated under a more business-like approach that Sternberg is familiar with from his days on Wall Street.
Because Sternberg will be what Major League Baseball considers the new "control person," the transition will have to be approved by a vote of the owners, though little opposition is expected. The next owners meeting isn't scheduled until November, but he could be approved on a conference call or be given interim approval.
Naimoli was perceived as a civic hero when he ended the Tampa Bay area's 20-year quest for a major-league team, winning the expansion franchise in 1995. But his reign has been marked by failure on and off the field, embroiled in controversy, confrontations and criticisms, including run-ins with fans, media and potential and former business partners.
The team has struggled, winning as many as 70 games once in its first seven seasons; has been among the major leagues' worst teams in terms of attendance; and has been criticized from all sides for a steady stream of poor decisions and a lack of planning.
Sternberg bought into the Rays convinced that under proper management, the team could succeed in the Tampa Bay market, but in an unenviable position of owning a large share of the team with little say in how it was run.
Sternberg amended his original deal during the 2004-05 offseason to have more control over the prime assets of the organization, such as the top young players and prospects. And recently, he has agreed to pay Naimoli to take control in time to put his plan in place for the 2006 season.
Naimoli is expected to retain a ceremonial title with the team and could still be a regular at the games, among other privileges.