Sternberg steps to the plate

By GARY SHELTON, Times Columnist
Published January 24, 2008

The question about Stuart Sternberg was never about his personality.

He walks into the room and, by golly, you cannot help but like the guy. He speaks softly, he listens closely and he reminds you so much of a college classmate that halfway through the conversation you feel the urge to chuck him on the shoulder. Even at hello, everyone knew Stu was a peach of a guy.

The question about Sternberg was not about his plan.

As a franchise, we all knew the Rays were a mess. Three years ago, when Sternberg and his ownership group took over, everyone knew he was going to need a good compass and a strong flashlight to guide his team out of the darkness. Even then, most knew Sternberg was going to need a little time.

No, the question we all shared was simple. What about his payroll?

It never changes. When it comes to a man owning a sports franchise, the money question is always about the money. It's one area where the cynics and the skeptics and the dreamers and the bandwagoners all agree. How much money is there to spend? How willing is the owner to spend it? And how much better can it make a team that has had so many bad days behind it?

Say hello to Sternberg, MVP of the most impressive offseason the Rays have had since, well, ever.

They have been active, they have been bold, they have been thoughtful. And yes, they have been willing to spend. And just like that, they suddenly look like a team that is about this year, not about some year to be named later.

The Rays' offseason got even better Wednesday when they signed pitcher James Shields to a seven-year contract. Couple that with the Carlos Pena signing, with the Scott Kazmir signing, with the Troy Percival signing, with the Cliff Floyd signing, with the trade for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, and it feels as if the Rays have started something.

"I think we get an A-plus," Sternberg said by phone. "This is the first offseason I've had some real fun with it. When I say fun, I mean enjoyment, gratification. We got answers to questions as opposed to replacing questions with new question marks. I feel very good about our team."

How can you blame Sternberg? No, this team is not ready to make a run at Boston or the Yankees. But after an eternity spent going nowhere, it looks as if it's ready to start climbing the division. That's a start.

As for a 70 percent jump in payroll (to about $40-million), that's pretty good, too.

Sternberg will tell you that his group has spent money all along, in scouting, in the minor leagues, in the foundation of the franchise. He will tell you more money was marketed for bullpen help last year, but the market was weak. He will tell you how much the team improved over last offseason when it found Aki Iwamura, Al Reyes and Pena.

And, yes, he understands the concerns.

"Fans are impatient," he said. "I know. I've been a fan most of my life. As the steward of this business, I have to do what's best. I understand people would be a little hesitant. They've heard the words before."

Perhaps, but the Rays have never made so many steps in the right direction. They have improved their bullpen, defense and clubhouse. They have signed, swapped and spent, and along the way, they may have traded in their old reputation for something better.

"We've got a lot of work to do," said Andrew Friedman, vice president in charge of baseball operations, "but we've made dramatic strides."

Cynics being who they are, it is easy to wonder if any of this was done with the proposed new stadium in mind. The Rays say no, it wasn't. And the signings of Pena and Shields to multiyear contracts seem to bear that out. If the vote is this fall, why commit money beyond that? Wouldn't people have been happy enough if they brought their players back for next season?

No, the temptation here is to grade the moves on a baseball level.

For instance, I love the re-signings of the past week. Teams don't get enough credit for retaining their guys, but the smart guys know that spending a dollar today can save $2 tomorrow. And can you imagine what Pena or Shields would get on the open market?

And I like the free-agent signings. If Percival is healthy, he'll make every reliever on the team a bit better. Both Percival and Floyd have the reputations of great clubhouse guys. Over the years, the Rays have suffered enough of players who aren't.

As for the offseason's big trade, well, let's wait and see. Dealing Delmon Young's bat was a bold move. If Friedman is wrong, he'll hear about it until Young is weary of hitting home runs. If he is right, if Bartlett is a superb defensive player despite his errors in Minnesota and if Garza can fit in as a sold starter after Kazmir and Shields, then this will work out fine.

No, no one expects every move is going to work out. Let's don't get giddy. If any organization knows that players get hurt and players slump and right moves sometimes turn out wrong, it's this one.

Still, isn't it refreshing to see the Rays so active? And isn't it grand to see that golden, oversized paper clip Sternberg uses to carry his money flashed so often? From a distance, it looks like a team buying itself a chance.

"We've talked over the years," Sternberg said. "Now we're walking the walk."

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.