tampabay.com

Rays payroll shrinks as goodwill is spent

Stu, I thought we were friends.

By JOHN ROMANO
Published January 24, 2007


Stu, I thought we were friends.

You, me and our 3-million or so neighbors.

I thought there was a rapport. I thought we all understood one another. You wanted a major-league franchise and we wanted to see what a real one looked like.

And yet, when I woke up the other morning, I was stunned at what I saw. Times baseball writer Marc Topkin had figured out the Devil Rays payroll for 2007 was going to be in the $24-million range.

In other words, it had gone backward. Again. And the Rays may soon be on their way to having the lowest payroll in the majors. Again.

Look, nobody expected miracles in the second season of the Sternberg era. But I'm pretty sure nobody expected to be calling Vince Naimoli the generous one, either.

I know there are logical explanations. I know there is a plan in place. But I also know, when looking at the bottom line, that this team is not going to be appreciably better in '07, and it could be worse.

After nine seasons of empty promises, that's a little hard to swallow. Yes, the talent base is stronger. And, yes, the club is in a better position financially.

But we're hearing too many rationalizations when it comes to increasing the payroll. So many that it's sounding like excuses instead of explanations.

Sternberg once suggested the payroll would increase 10 to 15 percent each season. Club officials say the increase was meant to be factored in over the long haul, and not as a season-by-season tracking guide.

Okay. So the Rays did not spend wildly last season. And they've taken a step backward this season. That's two years of getting their house in order.

That means, by 2008, the payroll better be around $40-million.

Either that, or we come after Ben Zobrist with cleats high.

Has the honeymoon been short? Absolutely. Do we seem excessively cranky after Sternberg's first 15 months on the job? Perhaps.

But you can blame - and haven't we all - Naimoli for that.

Because, as you know, this isn't our first relationship. The failed marriage with Naimoli left its scars. Our patience is gone, and our hooey meter is sharper.

That means we've already gotten over the feel-good frenzy of Sternberg's arrival. Sure, the free parking was great. And the smiling faces were a nice change. Sternberg's people did a wonderful job of pitching woo and, as a populace on the rebound, we embraced them like giddy teenagers.

No more. We will not fall for diversions, and we will not listen to forget-me-nots. In other words, we're not hopping in the back seat anymore.

Yes, as rants go, this one is stale. I've complained about the payroll, and you've complained about the payroll. Lou Piniella complained so much, they gave him millions of dollars just to shut up.

Even so, the Rays say they will not commit to some artificial payroll figure. That to do so would just be throwing money away in a weak free-agent market.

Yeah? What if their remaining fans applied the same theory to buying tickets?

What if they decide not to commit to some artificial attendance figure? That to do so would just be throwing money away on a weak American League East team?

Rays officials know you're getting antsy, but they say their plan needs time to develop. And their plan does not include overspending on marginal talent.

"We are very proud of what the organization has accomplished over the past 15 months," team president Matt Silverman said. "However, we are not at all satisfied with where we are right now, and we recognize that it will take a great deal more in many areas, including payroll, to get us all where we want to be."

Look, in a theoretical sense, I don't disagree with what the Rays are saying. There weren't many free-agent deals that seemed cost-effective this winter.

But Sternberg's crew arrived in town talking about a new way of approaching this sport, and all we've seen so far is the same old song-and-dance. Slash the payroll, and preach patience. Sorry, but it's not that inventive.

You can dump Aubrey Huff and Julio Lugo and Toby Hall, but eventually you have to add more than prospects and promises.

It's a tricky balancing act, I know. This market hasn't done enough to convince the Rays that spending beyond their means is a wise idea, but the Rays have done little to persuade fans to dig a little deeper into their pockets.

So now, there are ugly whispers outside. Fair or not, people are wondering about Sternberg's intentions. Wondering if the amount of profit has a disproportionate influence on the number of victories.

A year ago, I would have said absolutely not. Today, I'm less emphatic.

And next year?

That's up to you, Stu.