This year, the team's off-field issues appear to be every bit as important as its onfield performance.
PORT CHARLOTTE — There's no debate this is going to be a huge year for the Rays, potentially the most significant of their 13.
About the only question:
Is it bigger on the field, where a stellar collection of blossoming young talent led by Evan Longoria, a payroll pushed past a franchise-record $70 million-plus and looming free agency for Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña have created an all-in bid to return to the postseason?
Or off the field, where a soon-to-be accelerated quest for a new stadium that will create conversation and controversy, principal owner Stuart Sternberg's announced plan to reduce the payroll in future seasons and disappointing early indicators on attendance will force focus on the future of the franchise?
Going forward, who are the key players? Who, in or out of uniform, is most valuable? And who will have the most impact on the franchise? Index, 5C
1. Evan Longoria, third baseman
Longoria is everywhere — he's on covers of video games and magazines, he's doing national TV interviews, he's in ads and commercials for New Era hats and MLB. But most important to the Rays, he's playing third base and hitting in the middle of their order almost every day. Entering just his third season, he has already collected rookie of the year, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, and is headed toward perpetual MVP candidacy. Eight months from turning 25 and seven years before the end of his contract, Longoria not only has emerged as one of the game's top young players but is quickly joining the short list of overall elite. Think of it this way: What player would you trade him for even-up right now? Last year: 1
2. Stuart Sternberg, principal owner
The Rays prefer the focus be on the field, but the preponderance of significant issues facing Sternberg will turn the light-hitting rec league softball player into something of a cleanup hitter. Will there be a legit plan for a new stadium? Where will it be? What threats will be made if there isn't progress? How much will the payroll reduction hurt? And how much will he slash if attendance falls short of expectations again? Is there a point where he'd just give in to the frustration and get out, putting the team up for sale? For these reasons, and more, Sternberg is in the spotlight, and high on this year's list. Last year: NR
3. Matt Garza, starting pitcher
The Rays' success is predicated primarily on pitching, specifically starters. And Garza has the potential not only to be their ace, but one of the game's best. He has the best pure stuff on the staff, the highest upside and the least amount of projection — assuming he keeps his emotions under control — needed to be a perennial Cy Young contender. Think of some of the game's top young starters such as Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Tim Lincecum, and think of him as potentially being that good. Plus, he just turned 26 and is under team control through 2013. Last year: 6
4. B.J. Upton, centerfielder
As frustrating as his occasional lack of hustle may be, as disappointing of a season as he had, as galling as some consider his contract demands, Upton remains one of the potentially most dynamic players in the game. His rare and dazzling combination of speed, power and grace someday will evolve into a 30-homer, 30-steal, Gold Glove season, and the Rays can only hope it happens sooner, or at least while he's under their control through 2012. Last year: 2
5. Andrew Friedman, executive VP
Last year's signing of disappointing DH Pat Burrell showed he can do wrong, but Friedman's relentless efforts are a major reason for the team's success. Taking the core of young talent he inherited in October 2005, he and his staff have quickly built the Rays from bottom to top into one of the game's most talent-rich organizations. He turned Delmon Young and Brendan Harris into Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, and Aubrey Huff into Ben Zobrist and Kelly Shoppach; he made Carlos Peña, Eric Hinske and Akinori Iwamura appear, and Elijah Dukes disappear. Sternberg provides the money, and top-notch scouting and research staffs the data, but Friedman makes the difficult decisions every day. Last year: 4
6. David Price, starting pitcher
Price's reputation has preceded him, but he's just 24 with the potential to be a dominant lefty for a long time. After starting last season in the minors, then struggling his first two months, he settled in and showed his potential, going 7-3 with a 3.58 ERA over his final 12 starts. His first full season should be even better. Last year: 5
7. Joe Maddon, manager
A manager's impact on the outcome of a game can be minimal. But Maddon has had maximum impact on the overall organization, creating an atmosphere and respected reputation that is turning it into a prime destination. Last year: 7
8. James Shields, starting pitcher
Shields, though only 28, has been the stabilizing force of the rotation the past three seasons. The emergence of Matt Garza, David Price, Jeff Niemann and now Wade Davis may have diminished his role, but there's a lot to be said for someone who goes out and pitches 200 innings, keeps his team in every game and racks up double-digit wins. Plus, he's low-risk for injury and has a long-term deal. Last year: 3
9. Jason Bartlett, shortstop
He has been the solidifying force to their all-important defense and last year emerged as a key to their lineup, hitting .320 with 14 HRs, 66 RBIs. He'd be higher on the list if he weren't a free agent in 2012. With both sides interested in a long-term deal, he may end up sticking around. Last year: NR
10. Bill Foster, St. Petersburg mayor or Ken Hagan, Hillsborough County Commission chair
One area political leader will step up and take charge of the stadium issues, work through the expected issues and find a way — or at least exhaust every option — to get it done in some form of public-private partnership, just like they do in real places. But which one? Last year: NR
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.