PORT CHARLOTTE -- It was while discussing the history of the organization’s past-free agents-to-be and how that might relate to David Price’s future in Tampa Bay that Rays principle owner Stuart Sternberg offered what could rival “Eat Last” as the team slogan for this season and, in reality, every season.
“Winning still trumps all,” Sternberg said Tuesday morning at Charlotte Sports Park.
Sternberg touched on the usual subjects during his session with the media -- payroll, stadium, ticket sales, expectations for this year and the future of Price, who becomes a free agent after the 2015 season.
Winning was the underlying theme to most of his answers.
Winning is why he allowed executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman to pump so much money into the 2014 payroll to push it above $80 million for the first time in franchise history, and why Friedman was able to sign Price for one year at $14 million and re-sign first baseman James Loney and sign closer Grant Balfour and work contract extensions for outfielder David DeJesus and catcher Ryan Hanigan .
Sternberg said late last season that this year’s payroll would reflect last year’s payroll, which was rock bottom in the major leagues.
That, obviously, changed.
“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,” Sternberg said, “and we’re trying to do as much as we can to give them an opportunity to succeed.”
Sternberg said they could have found another first baseman and another closer for far less than what they are paying Loney (three years, $21 million) and Balfour (two years, $12 million). But the Rays have a chance to accomplish more with those two.
“Those guys are really the icing here (with) what we’re trying to do to give us the best chance,” he said.
Manager Joe Maddon ended his press conference the day pitchers and catchers reported by stating the goal this year is to win the World Series. The motto: “Eat Last,” which comes from the title of the book, “Leaders Eat Last,” which third baseman Evan Longoria read in the offseason.
When asked if he shares the same outlook as Maddon, Sternberg said, “We’ve got real problems if I’m thinking that. No. We could’ve spent $110 million -- we couldn’t spend it. If we had spent it, we wouldn’t have that anticipation. We’re outspent by two, two and a half times (by Boston and the New York Yankees), 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.”
His goal remains as it is every season.
“As I sit here today in February, I want to be playing -- as I will tell you my goal every year and I don’t anticipate that changing at any point -- is to be playing important games into September,” he said. “Now if we get to the end of August you can ask me that question again, and I would like to be able to give you a different answer.”
The other hot topics are the stadium issue and ticket sales.
Regarding the plight of Tropicana Field and the team’s desire for a new stadium, Sternberg said he plans to talk to new St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman soon.
When asked if he has expectations for any movement on the stalemate, Sternberg said, “It’s kind of hard to have expectations. We’ve been out this for eight years basically, about a new stadium. 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.”
Regarding ticket sales, Sternberg said the team’s new Flex Pack is doing well. Fans can buy tickets in three-, six- or nine-game packs, which offer savings of more than 50 percent off the regular prices.
“We’re very early in it,” he said. “The response has been great.”
Now, back to Price.
Sternberg said last spring that to bring Price back for the 2014 season wasn’t out of the question despite the team’s business model of trading two years before free agency. Sternberg notes Tuesday how Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena remained until the end of their multi-year deals in 2010 because with them, the Rays had a better chance to succeed that year.
The Rays can do with Price next season, as well.
The idea of a long-term deal with the ace left-hander might be out of the team’s reach, though, based on the Rays finances and the contracts given to top pitchers these days.
“You just can’t make decisions like that this far in advance,” Sternberg said, “and were trying to give the team as big of a chance as we can this year without sacrificing our future as well. There’s the opportunity of other players, there’s the expense that’s involved in it, but were still a little bit, I don’t want to say blinded, but a little enamored with the possibilities of what we can do, and what he brings (this season).”