Rays feel energized thanks to new owner

Published October 7, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Had a baseball and gloves been handy Thursday at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, Doug Waechter probably would have played a little catch.

The Devil Rays pitcher usually rests his arm for about a month after the season. But after listening to new Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg explain his vision for the team, the St. Petersburg native said he felt an adrenaline rush.

"The offseason has only been two or three days and I'm starting to think about baseball again," Waechter said. "This is exciting."

Waechter was one of four players, including reliever Danys Baez, catcher Toby Hall and centerfielder Rocco Baldelli, who took Sternberg up on a FedExed invitation to witness him assume control from the much-maligned Vince Naimoli.

This is what they heard:

Sternberg said the player payroll will rise slowly but steadily, though greater short-term expenditures are possible if done "smartly."

He said there is no timetable to hire a manager or general manager because expediency is not as important as finding the right fits.

Sternberg said he wants the manager to be a master communicator who is open to "new ideas" and is "willing to work as a team with other people in the organization."

He said the front office could be restructured without a traditional general manager. Instead, a group of "senior people" may put their heads together to make decisions.

And somewhere down the road, the team may get a new name.

"Some of the things going on here kind of get you going and excited for the season," Baldelli said. "Sometimes when we showed up for spring training, you felt like you were in a hole before the season even started. With these guys coming in, there will be some kind of climb in payroll. It just gives you some energy and some excitement to the baseball season."

"Absolutely, I want to go out and get ready for next season," Hall said. "Just to realize there's going to be hope when you go into spring training. It's not going to be the same thing we've dealt with the last five years.

"Losing Lou (Piniella) was tough, but with the new approach, it's going to take us in a better direction."

Hiring a general manager likely will come first. The most prominent name in the rumor mill is former Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker. Former Rangers GM John Hart is not expected to be in the mix.

Yankees bench coach Joe Girardi seems to be the Rays' favorite for manager to replace Piniella, but that could change quickly. It is believed Tampa Bay has yet to ask permission to speak with Girardi, who already is free to speak to the Marlins.

Also on the radar are Mets third-base coach Manny Acta and Rays third-base coach Tom Foley. Other possibilities are A's bench coach Ron Washington and Rays coaches Billy Hatcher and John McLaren.

Building the management group could be even more interesting. Sternberg said there literally could be "a group effort."

"The general manager, as we look at it, negotiates contracts (and) deals with the owner, Major League Baseball, the press, money, all these things. It's kind of tough for someone to be Superman like that. I don't know if it's fair to expect it."

Sternberg said Andrew Friedman, 28, director of baseball development, will have a "significant" role in setting policy and building the team.

"He has all my trust and confidence," Sternberg said.

Same for Matthew Silverman, 29, named team president, who will oversee all the team's daily operations.

There were few other specifics.

Sternberg said he might hire "consultants to help us do this and that, to come in and be part of the organization for a period of time. But the people who come in will be expected to do things that are going to build this organization so it can last and thrive and be part of the area for a long time."

Whether the team can thrive until payroll is significantly expanded from last season's major-league-low $29-million is another question. Sternberg advocated "steady, steady growth," and said he feels no pressure to immediately make a splash with a major player acquisition.

Still, he said, "Everything is up for discussion. But it has to be with the idea of improving the team and doing it smartly, not just for 10 minutes or 10 months, but for a long time."

Sternberg also said he will not add players from the minor leagues if they aren't expected to play.

"If a guy is going to come up and sit on the bench and twiddle his thumbs and not know what it means going forward, I don't know how much of a positive that is," he said.

On Thursday, players said it all was positive.

"I think everything he said was great," Baldelli said. "The team is going in the right direction."

"It's a new route we need to take," Hall said.

"It's refreshing."