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Progress promised, but when?
As year brings more of same, new Rays officials repeat vow to build for long-term success.
By MARC TOPKIN
Published October 1, 2006
CLEVELAND - Watching the Devil Rays lose 100 games in his first season was "acceptable" because of the circumstances, principal owner Stuart Sternberg said, but "it was not okay."
As the Rays wrap up their ninth season today and start working on making their 10th better, Sternberg said he wants as much as anyone to see the team win more.
But though frustrated fans, key players such as Carl Crawford and manager Joe Maddon are looking - and hoping - for immediate gains next season, Sternberg said he remains committed more to long-term improvement than short-term success, and any major moves executive vice president Andrew Friedman makes - and any significant increases he proposes to what they say is a fluid payroll - will be made for that reason.
"I think it's really about the players we add: Are they incrementally better, or can they really make us a better team and a better organization?" Sternberg said. "I know Andrew is all over this. I'm not against spending some more money, but it ain't going to happen just to spend it. No one does that in any of the businesses I've been in, and no one does that in their private lives.
"Especially with the approach that I'm not looking to win 75 to 80 games here. I'm looking to win 90, and looking to come in practically every season with the opportunity to win 90. That's where my focus is. The sooner we get there, the better. But I'm not willing to risk the chance to not get there long term by taking a shot to get there in one year, and then three years down the road you are nowhere."
What that Rays will do, Sternberg said, is be "opportunistic." If they can sign or trade for a big-name, high-salaried, still-young player who can help them for several years, he said they would be willing to spend heavily to do so. And if not this winter, then perhaps by making a deal during next season.
But against his long-term vision is the frustrating possibility of another lost season.
"If the plan is to compete in '08, then we definitely have to take a step forward in '07 in some kind of way," Crawford said. "If we don't move forward in any kind of way next year, then people are going to be raising their eyebrows again. Hopefully we'll make some progress."
There certainly is room for improvement.
The Rays not only are tied for the worst record in the American League but are threatening the Triple Crown, going into today's final game ranked at or near the bottom in hitting, pitching and fielding.
"We started from the ground up, so pretty much everything has to be addressed," Crawford said. "Upgrades everywhere. All around the table."
Friedman's primary targets for improvements are the defense (specifically the infield) and the bullpen, which are two areas that can be addressed creatively and somewhat inexpensively.
Certainly, two of the Rays' biggest questions involve infielders: where (if anywhere) does B.J. Upton, currently the third baseman, play; and how does struggling second baseman Jorge Cantu play. They also have to decide if shortstop Ben Zobrist is good enough, where Ty Wigginton fits in and whether they are fully committed to catcher Dioner Navarro, all while finding a way to add more offense to a lineup that has been held under five runs 101 times in 161 games.
"Without being specific, I'm good with maybe two guys that we have right now starting on the infield, including the catcher," Maddon said. "And a third is close."
The bullpen situation could be even more muddled. Maddon said the relievers have done better than their 5.02 ERA and 20 blown saves show; Friedman seems determined to seek upgrades. Seth McClung's claims to the job aside, they may end up seeking a veteran closer.
The big need the Rays may not address, however, is starting pitching. Though they will monitor the market, Friedman said paying for high-priced free agent talent "doesn't fit in with what we're trying to do."
Instead, the holes likely will be filled internally, which could make improvement difficult. "If we want to just keep experimenting and giving people opportunities," Maddon said, "I think it's going to be difficult to make any kind of quantum leap in regard to where we end up in the standings."
Another option is to make trades, and with all players potentially available, expect a long winter of rumors involving Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and even rookie sensation Delmon Young as the Rays have a surplus of outfielders.
"I don't think we're in position where we're good enough to not listen," Friedman said. "Obviously there are players that will be much more difficult for us to trade than others, and it will be reflected in the asking price. But we've got to get to the point where we're playing meaningful games at this time of year, and whatever it takes to get there we've got to do."
The players that are coming back also need to get better. Maddon has been a perpetual optimist this season, but in a few candid moments Friday acknowledged the Rays were so poor fundamentally - "It was really kind of staggering" - that he had to alter his game strategy because they consistently messed up hit-and-runs and bunts and missed signs.
"The word is execution," Maddon said. "Offensively, pitching, defensively, we just have to be more consistent within the fundamentals of the game."
Sternberg said he was pleased with the increases in attendance and interest throughout the region and plans to expand the team's presence to the east and south; is confident additional upgrades to Tropicana Field will continue to enhance the fan experience; wants to see the team do a better job preventing and managing injuries; that he knows some of this season's struggles were self-inflicted due to the trades they made ("some great decisions") and injuries were part of the reason they lost so much; and hopes fans will be patient and trust their plan.
"I think we're better now than we were one year ago," Sternberg said, "and hopefully we're going to be better in one year than we are now."
AL PLAYOFF TEAMS
New York Yankees: AL East champions, top seed
Detroit Tigers: Will win AL Central with victory today or Minnesota loss
Minnesota Twins: Will win AL Central with victory today and Detroit loss; otherwise AL wild card
Oakland Athletics: AL West champions
NL PLAYOFF TEAMS
New York Mets: NL East champions, top seed
San Diego Padres: Will win NL West with victory today or Los Angeles loss
Los Angeles Dodgers: Will win NL West with victory today and San Diego loss; otherwise NL wild card
STILL AT STAKE
NL Central: The Cardinals clinch the division with a win today or an Astros loss. A Cardinals loss and Astros win will force St. Louis to play a makeup game Monday against San Francisco. A win will clinch the division; a loss will mean a one-game playoff Tuesday in Houston.