Owner promises payroll bump

By MARC TOPKIN and DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writers
Published September 28, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - The Rays' payroll will go up at least 20 percent into the mid $30-million range next season, principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Thursday, though most of the increase will be taken up by retaining current players.

With the right offseason moves the Rays could have a chance to compete for a playoff spot next season, he said, acknowledging it's unlikely they'll get there.

But having termed the Rays' poor performance "unacceptable" during a Tropicana Field visit last month, Sternberg, buoyed by the team's recent improved play and increased competitiveness, had a much more positive outlook at Thursday's home finale. "I think we're playing better baseball than I'd say a majority of the teams in Major League Baseball right now," he said.

After promising at his October 2005 introduction that the payroll would go up each year and then cutting it to a major-league-low of about $24-million on opening day, Sternberg said the promised increase is coming. He figures they spent between $28-million and $29-million this season including bonuses, and will push it to the $34-million range next season, though that doesn't appear to leave room for any high-priced additions.

"We absolutely expect to increase payroll by 20 percent, maybe even a little bit more," Sternberg said. "That's what we're budgeting for. A lot of it is going to be internal to keep the guys that we have, like Carlos Pena in particular."

With the right additions, Sternberg said the Rays (65-94) can take a big step forward.

"I believe that by April 1 next year, if we've done our job, we've put our players in a position to contend for a playoff spot," he said. "It's not a likelihood, it's not obviously going to happen, but as long as we put them in a position to succeed we'll have done our job, and I believe we'll be there next year."

UNIFORM ISSUES: While not confirming that the recently leaked illustrations of the new uniform designs were correct, Sternberg said the idea of taking "Tampa Bay" off the road uniforms would be done to increase awareness and maximize exposure of the team's new branding as the Rays. Overall, he said the new look "going to give us an opportunity again to reinvent ourselves."

CROWD CONTROL: After drawing 28,962 Thursday, the Rays finished with a season home attendance of 1,387,603, giving them an average of 17,130 and a slight increase over last season's 1,368,940.

YANKEE DOODLES: Did Yankees manager Joe Torre sleep well after clinching a postseason berth Wednesday? "About two hours," said Torre, who's been fighting a cold. "I may not look like it, but I feel fine, aside from sniffles a little bit. (The difference) is just not having to think about anything, which is great."

MISCELLANY: Manager Joe Maddon plans to start reserves Joel Guzman and Justin Ruggiano in all three games in Toronto. ... 2B Brendan Harris made his first appearance since straining his left lat muscle Sept. 18 as a pinch runner in the eighth.

Bottom's up

How the Rays stand in avoiding the worst record in the majors:

Team W-L GA

x-Rays 65-93 -

x-Orioles 67-91 +2

Pirates 68-91 +2.5

Marlins 69-90 +3.5

x-Royals 68-90 +3

x-White Sox 69-89 +4