PORT CHARLOTTE — Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg truly is excited about this season.
His goal is "to be playing meaningful games in the month of September," and he thinks they've got the team, particularly the pitching, to do so and compete with the mighty Yankees and Red Sox.
It's just that there are so many other issues and uncertainties about his squad.
There's the potential, if not probable, loss of stars Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña via free agency, though Sternberg says the Rays will do what they can to keep them.
There's the impact of a "bad" renewal rate on season tickets and how that further dents their hopes to increase attendance overall.
There's the plan to significantly reduce payroll after this season, the price of spending — or, as he says, "overspending" — what they are now.
And, of course, there's the issue of getting a new stadium.
Sternberg talked on those topics, and others, during a 30-plus-minute media session as his team went through its first workout of the spring.
On retaining stars Crawford and Peña
Sternberg called Crawford "a face of this organization" and said the leftfielder has been "a great Ray," and even "a great Devil Ray." Then he said, "We're going to do everything we can to make sure he stays here longer."
The reality, though, is it will be difficult, as Crawford makes $10 million in the last year of a six-year, $33.5 million deal he significantly outplayed and is looking to make up for.
Sternberg spoke similarly of Peña, who makes $10.125 million in the last year of his contract. And, technically, he didn't dismiss re-signing both, as unlikely as that is since he already said the payroll is headed under $60 million.
"You can do anything," he said. "As my mother said to me, for money, you can have anything. But we have a limited amount of money, and you have to make choices. … It's a challenge. They're both players, I could say quite frankly, I'd love to have here for years. They're tremendous guys. They're everything you want on a baseball team."
On tickets, attendance
The Rays won't provide numbers, but their season-ticket base is considered one of the game's lowest. Sternberg said the rate of renewals from last year, when some fans bought based on 2008's postseason run, has been "bad … not good" and the drop-off significant. And that follows last year, when attendance fell far short (more than 20 percent) of Sternberg's goal of matching the major-league average of 30,351; the Rays averaged 23,148.
"We haven't closed the book on it yet. We're stilling selling season tickets, we're getting renewals," he said. "The numbers are still up dramatically from where we are when we took the place over, and we'll see as it progresses. But it's the lifeblood of the organization. Sponsorships are doing great, our ratings on TV are great, our radio ratings are great, everything else is fine.
"But for some reason, people are choosing not to come out as they do in other parts of the country for Major League Baseball."
On reducing payroll in the future
After increases to $63 million last season and in excess of $70 million this year, the payroll is headed down significantly next year — "a good deal lower," he said — at least into the $50 million range, if not lower.
But with a number of high-priced veterans coming off the books and many good, young and low-paid players, Sternberg said he expects them to be able to remain competitive, pointing out they won the AL East in 2008 with a $43 million payroll.
"Things happen," he said. "It all starts with what's going on with the arms. 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're going to be there next year."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.