tampabay.com

Sternberg remains optimistic and realistic

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg is naturally optimistic about the start of the season.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published April 4, 2007


NEW YORK - Principal owner Stuart Sternberg is naturally optimistic about the start of the season.

But he is also realistic enough to know that with the youngest overall team in the majors and the youngest opening day lineup in nearly 25 years, the Rays are going to be an evolving product throughout the season.

And he likes what it could look like at the end.

"It's nice to have a group of players where, almost to a man, all 25, whose best days are ahead of them," Sternberg said. "Certainly they are performing well now, but we know - barring injuries or any unforeseen circumstances - each to a man is going to be better in June and better in September.

"You can't ask for more than that."

Part of Sternberg's business plan was to first improve the facilities at Tropicana Field so the fan experience is better and to overhaul the administrative infrastructure to make it a more efficient operation - so that when the team on the field improves, the entire organization can move forward.

Critics have questioned why he didn't spend more money to improve the team first - the payroll was reduced to a major-league low $23.2-million. But Sternberg said he is pleased with the way it is unfolding, citing the competition for roster spots as an indication of future success.

"We didn't put the cart before the horse, and we're letting it work its way through," Sternberg said. "We're just fortunate we have a lot of players for the 25 spots. I really feel very good about what it looks like on the field. You have some unfortunate circumstances - injuries are going to happen, things go on, nonperformance because there is not a lot of track record - but to a man I would expect each of them to be better ballplayers as the season progresses."

FOR STARTERS: Jae Seo has reasons to think this will be a better season than last, when he was acquired by the Rays from the Dodgers and won once in 17 appearances.

Seo, 29, said he lost weight and firmed up to be in better physical shape, has improved his repertoire with development of his two-seam fastball and has increased confidence following a solid spring.

"In my mind, everything has changed from last year," Seo said. "It's a new season. I'm ready."

What he can't control is whether the Rays score more runs for him. Last year, he received the lowest run support (2.86 per nine innings) of any AL pitcher who made at least 15 starts. The Rays were shut out three times and held to one run three other times.

"I think he's very focused, and I really expect a good year out of him," manager Joe Maddon said. "He likes the bright lights, and he likes the big stage, and I like him for that also."

CHICO IS THE MAN: The Rays have about 50 employees who have been with the team for all 10 seasons, starting with the very first one hired, John Higgins, the general counsel and a senior vice president.

But the only one who has seen all 10 opening days live and in person is Chris Fernandez, who was on the clubhouse staff in 1998 and has been the video coordinator the past nine years.

"I've been blessed to see them all," Fernandez said.

Travel director Jeff Ziegler also has seen all 10, though he was working as a St. Petersburg police officer assigned to the team in 1998. TV broadcasters Joe Magrane and Dewayne Staats missed the 2004 opener in Tokyo.

MINOR MATTERS: Jason Hammel is scheduled to start Thursday's Triple-A opener, leading an impressive Durham rotation that includes J.P. Howell, Jeff Niemann, Andy Sonnanstine and Mitch Talbot. ... Top infield prospects Evan Longoria and Reid Brignac will start with Double-A Montgomery, which also opens Thursday.

MISCELLANY: Barring a postponement today or Thursday, the Rays are expected to bring ace LHP Scott Kazmir back to pitch Saturday on his normal fifth day then use No. 5 starter RHP Edwin Jackson on Sunday. ... Maddon said he might use DH Rocco Baldelli, C Dioner Navarro and 2B B.J. Upton - all of whom are recovering from leg problems - today then rest some, or all, Thursday.