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Sternberg levelheaded amid Rays' high expectations

Maddon and Co. preach 'Eat last;' owner focused on meaningful September games

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Rays manager Joe Maddon hasn't been shy about his lofty hopes for the 2014 season, and Tampa Bay's players have their eyes set on nothing less than the World Series.

While Maddon has said the Rays need to start focusing on playing deeper into the postseason, principal owner Stuart Sternberg stuck with his usual mantra as he arrived at Spring Training on Tuesday: He just wants the Rays to play important games in September.

The Rays' top executive hasn't exactly hopped on board the "Eat Last" train, record-high payroll or not, and he doesn't want anyone to take Tampa Bay's six-year run of success for granted.

"We've got real problems if I'm thinking that, no. We could've spent $110 million -- well, we couldn't spend it. If we had spent it, we wouldn't have that anticipation," Sternberg said. "We're outspent by two, two and a half [times], and then the division that we play in, to think that you're somehow going to have this goal and reasonable opportunity to be in the playoffs is nuts.

"I like the outcome, and I like keeping the bar high internally. But people thinking that you just rub a lamp and 90 wins appear, and it should be expected year after year, diminishes, I think, how special the job that's been done around here by this organization."

Sternberg said he won't evaluate the season based on how much money team ownership poured into the roster, but said he was excited about the roster the Rays have put together. They did some of that work over the past few years by acquiring players like Wil Myers, David DeJesus, Yunel Escobar and James Loney, all of whom are still under team control.

It's rare for Tampa Bay to experience as little turnover as it did this winter, but it came at a cost. The Rays' Opening Day payroll will be around $80 million, a figure executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman has called "unaffordable."

Sternberg admitted Tuesday that, as the offseason began, he didn't foresee the Rays' payroll climbing quite so high. Things changed when the Rays found themselves able to solidify their first-base situation by signing Loney to a three-year, $21 million deal and bring in a proven closer, Grant Balfour, for two years and $12 million.

"I just felt like at the end of last year, we had some things that we were still yet to accomplish with this group of guys, and we're trying to do as much as we can to give them an opportunity to succeed," Sternberg said. "I'm pretty certain that had we stayed lower down, specifically if we had a different option at first base and a different option at the back of the bullpen, we would have been closer to where we anticipated.

"We would've had to find somebody else to play first somehow, and we would've filled in, in the bullpen with the very capable pitchers that we have. Those guys are really the icing here [with] what we're trying to do to give us the best chance."

Then there's left-hander David Price, who seemed like a sure bet to be traded during the offseason. Price can be a free agent after the 2015 season. Sternberg admitted it would be hard to keep the ace long-term given the "inflation" in the market for starting pitching. But the owner also pointed out that the Rays have held on to other highly paid stars until they reached free agency -- notably Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton -- and "wouldn't say it's likely his last year."

"Winning still trumps all," Sternberg added. "You just can't make decisions like that this far in advance, and we're trying to give the team as big of a chance as we can this year without sacrificing our future as well."

Sternberg addressed the Rays' low attendance at Tropicana Field and their desire for a new stadium. He said he was "pleasantly pleased" with the debut of the team's new Flex Packs technology, calling it an "extremely compelling product" that has been received well by fans.

He also offered some high praise for St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman, expects to speak with him soon and looks forward to hearing the new mayor's thoughts on the situation.

"It's kind of hard to have expectations. We've been at this for eight years, basically, about a new stadium," Sternberg said. "I'm human in some respects. I'm a little numb to it, but I do think things will be different. Time-wise, I can't say. My focus is nurturing and trying to win as many baseball games for our fans."

But his focus isn't on publicly setting expectations for the Rays this season, no matter how often he was asked to do so on Tuesday. The oft-repeated mantra is that the Rays want to play meaningful, important games in September, and Sternberg is just fine with that.

For now, at least.

"If we get to the end of August, you can ask me that question again," Sternberg said, smiling. "And I would like to be able to give you a different answer."

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.
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