Bodley: Rays owner cautious about future

Bodley: Rays owner cautious

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Stuart Sternberg, savvy owner of the Tampa Bay Rays, in a recent interview predicted that his team's payroll must be sliced from more than $70 million this season to the $50 million range for 2011.

Sternberg spoke with the St. Petersburg Times as Spring Training is in full bloom and optimism for 2010 is high. The Rays are much improved from last year's disappointing season. They should be able to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox.

But the cautionary message Sternberg sends, I believe, is that after this year that might change. It's unlikely the Rays will be able to afford premier players Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, who may leave via free agency after this season.

Manager Joe Maddon, who guided the young Rays to their first World Series in 2008, said Sternberg's predictions put no extra pressure on the team or on him.

"You could make that argument, but I don't necessarily feel that," Maddon said. "It's just the world the Rays live in. This is how it's going to be every year. We want to win the World Series annually, but maybe the peripheral vision has to be on the future at all times.

"I know that. We know that. So we go out and try to cover our bases. That's why our farm system is so important, why the Rays' way of doing things is so important."

Maddon, always the optimist, told me that's the only way he can approach this season -- or any other for that matter.

"I look at it from that perspective, rather than we don't have enough money or somebody has too much money, whatever," he says. "That's how we're going to do business."

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During the Owners' Meetings in January, Cincinnati Reds owner Bob Castellini asked me what I believe Major League Baseball's biggest challenge is.

Before I answered, Castellini did. "Competitive balance," he said. "We have to do something more for the low-revenue franchises. They have to be able to compete."

I thought of Castellini's views when I read Sternberg's interview and listened to Maddon's optimistic appraisal of the Rays' predicament.

Renewal of season tickets, Sternberg said, is "bad ... not good."

Usually when a team goes to the World Series, there's an attendance jump the following season, but the 2009 Rays fell short of the Major League average of 30,351, drawing a disappointing 23,148.

Small-market teams can win as the Rays did in 2008 with a $43 million payroll.

The problem is that teams with low revenue cannot sustain their success. This may be a stretch, but I believe, especially with their starting pitching and the addition of closer Rafael Soriano, that the 2010 Rays will be a threat to the Yankees and Red Sox.

But after this year? In the end, it's all about revenue.

This past season, five of the eight teams in the playoffs were in the top third among the 30 teams in payroll. Six of the eight were in the top 50 percent. Only Colorado (18th) and Minnesota (24th) were in the bottom half, and they were ousted in the first round.

When the Yankees and Phillies met in the 2009 World Series, they were first ($200 million) and seventh ($113 million), respectively, in payroll.

Commissioner Bud Selig says it's his fervent desire that every team have "hope and faith each year when Spring Training begins."

For this to happen, revenue sharing must be increased. I'm certain that when a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is negotiated after the 2011 season that will be a key item of discussion.

New stadiums -- that's a hot topic here with the Rays considering a new ballpark -- help with much better revenue, but without a competitive team on the field the honeymoon quickly ends.

Last year, small-market teams received $450 million from revenue sharing.

I think it's going to be difficult to get approval to increase that number, because the wealthier teams -- the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, etc. -- kick in 90 percent of the total amount and are wary of giving up more. Plus, the Players Association is concerned that some of the teams receiving the money are not using it to improve their teams, instead using it to enhance their bottom lines.

The Rays have an excellent farm system, loaded with outstanding prospects, players who could possibly replace Crawford and Pena.

Sternberg points to pitching.

"It all starts with what's going on with the arms," he said. "If these guys have the kind of season that we expect of them, and they expect of themselves, we will be competitive next year because they are going to be here next year."

In many respects, for teams such as the Rays, it comes down to attitude.

"Actually, I find it challenging," Maddon said. "I think we're more pure in a sense. We're not out to buy things on an annual basis. I'm not opposed to purchasing a good player if we can and it all fits. But these are the perimeters we work with here, and I am very comfortable with them."

And then, Maddon summed up the only way teams such as the Rays can exist -- and compete: "We try to get our own seeds, throw them in the dirt, watch them rise up and become something good. I like that."

But having enough money to water them is the problem.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.