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Rays/MLB

New boss looking too much like old boss

By JOHN ROMANO
Published September 21, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - They have a plan. I have a migraine.

They have faith. I have sweaty palms.

These new owners of the Devil Rays have total confidence they are on a true path toward contention. I have recurring nightmares of the Naimoli years.

And so it goes, as we near the end of another season. Stuart Sternberg and his crew swear a corner has been turned, although I must point out the gutter looks awfully familiar.

The Rays have lost more than 90 games for a ninth consecutive season, which is a new standard for stinky in the 45 years since Major League Baseball went to a 162-game schedule. Next year, the Rays could tie the all-time record of 10 consecutive 90-loss seasons set by the Phillies in the 1930s and '40s.

Are you shocked? Probably not. Numb and disillusioned, but not shocked.

We have known for quite some time that this franchise was in disarray, and we knew it would take more than happy words to turn it around.

The question today is whether Sternberg is up for the task.

When he was taking over around this time last year, Sternberg seemed entirely capable of exorcising the demons of a thousand Rays regrets. Every move he made seemed astute, every note he hit sounded like a symphony.

Sternberg hasn't changed in the past 12 months, but reality has a way of sharpening our fangs. Goodwill disappeared somewhere around 75 losses.

Patience left shortly after Julio Lugo.

And now Sternberg is saying the Rays will not spend money just for the sake of spending money. Okay, so I applaud the honesty. And I can't say that I disagree.

But, um, when did he become such a, you know, owner?

He seemed like a pal. He looked like a regular guy. For crying out loud, I wanted to borrow his iPod.

I'm not suggesting Sternberg isn't the same engaging person who saved us from Vince Naimoli last year, but I wonder if he understands the position he is in.

This franchise is at a critical stage. We are nearing unprecedented levels of ineptitude on the field and dangerously indifferent attitudes in the bleachers.

Much has been sacrificed to get the Rays into the position they are in today. The payroll is low. The talent level is growing. And that means it is absolutely imperative that ownership moves boldly toward success.

Team president Matt Silverman says that is exactly what the Rays are doing. If the right players become available in the offseason - probably through trade and not free agency - he said the Rays won't hesitate to increase payroll.

That's good. That's encouraging.

I just hope it happens.

Because the Rays cannot afford to watch from the lobby any longer. There is a false security in having a system full of promising young players. You keep thinking you can plug this guy in that hole, and that guy in this hole.

But the problem with waiting for young players is sometimes they don't show up. Josh Hamilton disappeared for several years. Dewon Brazelton arrived as an empty uniform. Jorge Cantu and Jonny Gomes took backward steps, and Scott Kazmir has a cranky shoulder.

You simply cannot count on all these 20-somethings to take you from 60 wins to 90. It almost never works that way. You have to supplement with high-priced imports. And they must be brought in over several years.

You cannot treat a contending season as if it were a prison break. You do not plan, plan, plan and then - BOOM! - do everything in a single day.

Look at how the Tigers did it. In 2003, they lost 119 games. That offseason, they added Pudge Rodriguez and Carlos Guillen. A year later, it was Magglio Ordonez and Placido Polanco. This year, they got Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones. And, all the while, their young pitching staff was growing.

The improvement wasn't always apparent - they dropped from 72 wins to 71 despite a $22-million payroll increase in 2005 - but it was coming together.

And, today, the Tigers are a handful of wins from the playoffs.

I understand the Rays may not have the resources to increase the payroll to the $80-million range like the Tigers. And I know they cannot afford mega-mistakes on free-agent pitchers the way the Yankees have with Carl Pavano.

But wouldn't it be just as costly to not take advantage of the promising situation they find themselves in today?

The longer they wait, the more bargain-contract years they lose on their young players. The longer they wait, the more fans drift away. The longer they wait, the more disenchanted players such as Carl Crawford might become.

"We don't like watching this either. We think it's unacceptable, too," Silverman said. "But we're trying to grow it the best way we know how. And we're going to stick to our plan because we believe it's working."

The plan makes sense as a business model. And if it were my money, I might tell Silverman and Andrew Friedman to do exactly what they're doing.

But here's the catch:

A baseball team is not like a regular business.

Yes, you must pay attention to the bottom line but, no, you cannot be obsessed with it. If you do not have the resources to take the occasional risk then, like Naimoli, you have no business being an owner.

Sternberg is smart. He is personable. I believe he has already done some wonderful things for the Rays and has plans for more.

I just wish he would hurry.

[Last modified September 21, 2006, 02:09:38]


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