ST. PETERSBURG — The doom-and-gloom future forecast by principal owner Stuart Sternberg after Tuesday's departure from the playoffs won't affect the Rays' plans to improve their team for next season.
Or their optimism about it.
Executive vice president Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon made it clear Thursday they expect to continue their run of success after reaching the playoffs three of the past four years.
"I think the one thing we've learned about Stu is that things change," Friedman said. "He likes to say markets change. Things change. Before we got (reliever) Rafael Soriano (in December 2009), he said there's going to be no $7 million closer coming, and five days later there was. I know he's frustrated, but on the baseball operations side of things, we try to insulate ourselves from that. It doesn't do us any good to get caught up in that."
Friedman plans to go into this offseason as the Rays have their previous six under Sternberg, with no set payroll figure and the possibility of increasing — or decreasing — this year's $41 million, based on opportunities.
"I'd expect that it would have some flexibility up and down, depending on how things shake out and what presents itself from a player-procurement standpoint in terms of what we can get, what it means in terms of our other guys and how it fits," Friedman said. "But we're going to be a really talented team next year. We've proven time and time again it's not necessarily about the payroll numbers, it's about the talent we have. It's easy to use it an excuse, but the two of us refuse to do so."
Assuming the Rays retain their core players, they would go into 2012 with more than $22 million committed in salaries (pitcher Wade Davis, third baseman Evan Longoria and infielder Ben Zobrist) and expected-to-be-executed options (pitcher James Shields, reliever Kyle Farnsworth), and likely another $16 million for arbitration-eligible players: pitchers Jeff Niemann and David Price, reliever Joel Peralta and outfielder B.J. Upton.
That's about $38 million without a designated hitter and a first baseman; incumbents Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman are free agents. That's also without an experienced catcher. The Rays hold a $3.2 million option on Kelly Shoppach, though they could seek to bring him back for less if they can't find an upgrade as part of their projected tandem.
The Rays' primary goal for the offseason will be improving the offense. The most logical avenue is trading from their stockpile of starting pitchers, which is eight deep with the emergence of Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Alex Torres.
But Friedman said he's reluctant to dilute the depth (he said the same thing before trading Matt Garza last year) or diminish the defense (a major-league co-leading .988 fielding percentage).
"I would love to maintain the caliber of defense we have and add offense, of course," Friedman said.
Another priority will be the bullpen. As opposed to last offseason, when it had to be rebuilt, Friedman said that with Farnsworth and Peralta returning and the development of their young arms, the Rays would be looking for just one or two additions.
"I'm definitely going to get a lot more sleep this offseason," Friedman said.