NASHVILLE — Principal owner Stuart Sternberg was standing outside the Opryland resort suite that serves as the Rays' winter meetings headquarters Tuesday insisting he had reason to remain optimistic even as another example of how great the challenge is was added to a growing list.
Ben Zobrist, who rose from minor-leaguer to All-Star with the Rays, had just finalized a deal to sign with the Cubs for a whopping $56 million over four years. That came a week after another ex-Rays star, David Price, got a seven-year deal from the Red Sox for a pitcher-record $217 million — more than Sternberg spent to buy the entire team.
The soaring costs of talent make it increasingly tough for the Rays to retain their players and to find quality replacements. Attendance at the Trop, already worst in the majors, continues to dwindle. Inequities in Major League Baseball's supposedly competitively balanced economic system mount exponentially. The stalemate over the potential panacea of a new stadium heads into another year, though with an end to the initial road block potentially in near sight.
"I do believe," Sternberg told the Tampa Bay Times. "I'm confident I'll find a way. I'm an optimist at heart. It's been a 10-year run so far and, I don't want to speak for any owners in baseball, but I don't know how many would trade their last 10 years for mine.
"With all the challenges and opportunities ahead, with our staff that's in place and people that we have working for us, I feel real good about it. I really do."
"I don't mind a fight with a hand tied behind my back. I don't mind a fight going in if I don't have enough sleep. But it's tough when the other guy is driving a tank and I'm sitting there on a three-speed bicycle. It really is hard. And that's where we are. And there's just more tanks coming. And that's what it feel like now."
Those aren't the only bleak analogies Sternberg makes.
He notes how other small-market teams, such as the world champion Royals and Pirates, have converted onfield victories into financial success in terms of attendance and media ratings, and how teams such as the Diamondbacks used the revenues from their new TV deal to make a blockbuster signing, landing ace Zack Greinke in a six-year, $206 million deal.
"We're getting left on an island," Sternberg said. "A smaller and smaller island."
Then he goes back to the cost of player acquisition, noting how the Rays don't even bother to talk about most free agents and find themselves exhausting endless hours working on complex trades that rarely come together, when their rivals simply pick and pay.
"We're not going to be on a level playing field," he said. "I'd like to at least be in the outfield, but it's like we're out in the parking lot, looking in."
If it weren't for the little fact that Sternberg believes the team is good enough to win in 2016, he might do things differently. He could strip the payroll way down from the projected $70 million range that he considers the outer limit — actually, slightly beyond — of affordability due to what he said are repeated years of losing money.
"The less I could spend, the better," he said. "But if we want to win baseball games and if we want to be competitive in September, there are things we have to do."
A new stadium, whether on the east side of downtown Tampa or at the Trop site or wherever else in the bay area, will help. But Sternberg admits they don't know for sure whether it will increase attendance by a million or so to get to the 2.5 million mark he feels would work. Also, it will take at least a year to settle on a new site and probably a couple more to get financing and approvals, so maybe six or seven from the start of the process to first pitch. A presumably rich new TV deal "a few years from now" — not after 2016 as has been reported — should also provide a welcome revenue boost.
With his stature within the MLB hierarchy growing, Sternberg is trying to effect at least marginal change, pushing for a system that provides small-market teams with more high draft picks, essentially eliminating the punishment for success under the present plan.
Sternberg, and his staff, try to find motivation in the challenge, knowing they succeeded in the past, making the playoffs four times from 2008-13. Some days that's enough to offset the discouraging reality.
"I could just use a lot less discouragement," he said.
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.