No spending for spending's sake

Published September 10, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Principal owner Stuart Sternberg said the Devil Rays will significantly increase their payroll for next season only if they can make their team significantly better.

If not, they could open next season with a team similar to what they have now and a payroll of around $28-million, which would be about $8-million less than they started with this season.

Sternberg said the key will be acquiring players who can make them better for an extended period of time, specifically in the infield or starting rotation. They could bid for a top-notch free agent or take on salary in trade.

"We have a number of questions to answer, but I think we know a few things," he said. "It's a question of where we add, what's available and what we have to pay."

Rays officials had indicated the payroll would rise progressively each season, perhaps 10-15 percent annually, but Sternberg said they won't do as other teams have and spend the money just to say they spent it. The Royals and Pirates, for example, committed to payroll increases this past offseason but ended up adding expensive yet mediocre veterans. The Rays could instead invest the money in international signings or bank it for future use.

Looking at the team, Sternberg considers many of the field positions to be set, especially the outfield, which has Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Delmon Young, Jonny Gomes and possibly Elijah Dukes, and catcher with Dioner Navarro. Though B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist, Jorge Cantu and Ty Wigginton could fill out the infield, Sternberg indicated they are more open to change there, including the possibilities of moving Cantu or Gomes to first.

"I don't see us spending money to improve the outfield," Sternberg said. "Obviously the focus will be around the infield and whether we can improve significantly. I know we're not going to spend a lot of money to improve marginally."

Sternberg has a similar view of the rotation, which he considered "significantly improved" over the start of the season, saying Scott Kazmir, Jae Seo and James Shields seem set and they have "a plethora of guys" who could fill the two remaining spots. The question, though, is whether they pursue proven starters to take the top spots or fill out the back end with pitchers they have.

"How significant of an improvement can we make at those spots?" he said. "Someone has got to be a good deal better than we already have."

He said much the same about the bullpen: that the Rays have plenty of candidates and though they may seek a proven veteran, "we're not the kind of team that's going to spend $5-8-million for a bullpen arm."

He also said they won't react to what other teams do. The Blue Jays raised their payroll from $45-million in 2005 to $72-million this season and last week said they will raise it an unspecified amount next year.

"Good for them," Sternberg said. "They made a huge increase and it's got to be frustrating to be in the same place (third) and to win only a few more games this year. I'd guess there's some disappointment; that's the nature of the game.

"It's not going to change what we do. We've got a plan. We've executed it to this point. And we're going to stick with it. They have a different set of resources. Whatever short-term fluctuations there are, if it happens to be the Blue Jays doing one thing, or the Marlins doing something else, it doesn't mean we're going to go up and down. We have to do what's in the best interest of what we're trying to accomplish, which is to win, and to win for a long time."

RAYS RUMBLINGS: The free parking program at the Trop is likely to be extended through the 2007 season if some details can be worked out. ... With the usual tweaking, overall ticket prices are expected to reflect a slight increase for next season. ... The Rays are working to expand their presence in Orlando by getting their games on TV, as well as in markets south of Sarasota. ... With the annual affiliate shuffling starting this week, the Rays are looking to get their advanced Class A team closer than the California League. A leading possibility is to take over the Dodgers' Vero Beach team in the Florida State League, with the idea they could eventually move it to their new spring site in Port Charlotte. ... They also may seek to move their Class A team from the Midwest League back to the South Atlantic League.