Rays aim to be destination spot

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 20, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - Having spent considerable time and money over the past 27 months trying to make the Rays at least competitive, principal owner Stuart Sternberg took a break from writing checks Friday to acknowledge their progress.

"The goal is to get the organization to a place where we feel coming in we should win 80-something games, and if things break right you win 8-10 more and if things break badly you win 10 less," he said. "We're pretty much there. Being in a position to win 65 with the chance to win 75 is not acceptable."

But that's just part of their construction project.

Sternberg, team president Matt Silverman, executive VP Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon are also attempting to change history by improving the franchise's tarnished reputation.

"We're trying to reverse the image of the Rays organization in the industry," Friedman said. "Our goal is to become a destination spot where players want to play and people want to work. We've made quantum leaps, but we still have a lot of work to do."

The convincing has to start with their own. Rewarding team MVP Carlos Pena with a three-year, $24.125-million contract was a significant move, which got notice throughout the baseball world.

Stepping up to avoid arbitration with ace Scott Kazmir $3.785-million, Dan Wheeler ($2.85-million) and Jonny Gomes ($1.25-million), and initiating a potential seven-year deal with James Shields, were positive signs, too.

"There's good things going on," Pena said. "You're going to keep seeing players wanting to be here. There's something in the clubhouse. It's alluring. It's contagious. It's good. I think people are going to be attracted to that."

Though Kazmir wasn't swayed enough to sign a long-term deal yet, with free agency still three years away he remains open to the possibility.

"Sure. Definitely," Kazmir said. "I'm really liking the moves we've made and feel like we're taking the right steps. I'm excited. I talked to a couple other players and we're all excited."

People excited about being Rays?

Maybe things have changed.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: There have been talks about signing free-agent (and ex-Ray) lefty reliever Trever Miller, but length of contract remains an issue. ... One reason the Rays were comfortable that Willy Aybar's problems (going AWOL, substance abuse) are behind him? A strong endorsement from Pena, who knows Aybar and his family and talked with him over the winter in the Dominican Republic. ... ESPN.com's Keith Law picks Arizona's Justin over Tampa Bay's B.J. as the Upton with the "higher upside," but an online poll of more than 11,000 fans favors B.J. 59-41 percent. ... If Evan Longoria isn't on the team, third base looks like an Aybar/Joel Guzman platoon. ... Baseball America's ranking of the Rays' top prospects: Longoria, LHP David Price, LHP Jake McGee, RHP Wade Davis, SS Reid Brignac, OF Desmond Jennings, RHP Jeff Niemann, RHP Jeremy Hellickson, OF Ryan Royster, RHP Chris Mason. ... High-profile Trop emcee Rusty Kath, back in Minnesota doing Wild hockey and Swarm lacrosse games, said a return to the Rays - who've hired a Toronto-based company to run in-game entertainment - is "up in the air." ... Akinori Iwamura is due in camp a week early to work on the move from third base to second. ... Baseball Prospectus lists C Dioner Navarro among nine players headed for "breakout" years. ... Pena will donate $225,000 from his new contract to the team's charitable foundation. ... Former U of Tampa standout Ronnie Merrill signed and looks to be the Double-A shortstop. ... OF Justin Ruggiano and Niemann attended MLB's rookie development program.

MISCELLANY: Though they've flirted with Arizona, the Reds may not be leaving Sarasota after all: another vote for a new spring stadium is Tuesday. ... Washington's new stadium has only about 5,000 onsite parking spots, meaning shuttles or public transportation for pretty much all but Nats' season-ticket holders. ... The Braves in 2009 will move their Triple-A team from Richmond, Va., to the Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett County, just 30 miles from Turner Field. ... The Orioles seem committed to starting over and dealing ace Erik Bedard and 2B Brian Roberts.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.


Big deals

Largest contracts given by the Rays, by dollar amount:

Player Terms AAV

Wilson Alvarez $35-million, 5 years $7m

Greg Vaughn 34-m, 4 years 8.5m

Carlos Pena 24.125-m, 3 years 8.04m

Rob. Hernandez 22.5-m, 4 years 5.63m

Carl Crawford 15.25-m, 4 years* 3.81m

Aubrey Huff 14.5-m, 3 years 4.83m

Juan Guzman 12.5-m, 2 years 6.25m

Fred McGriff 12-m, 2 years 6m

AAV - annual average value; * - plus two option years

Source: Times research