PORT CHARLOTTE — There are times, principal owner Stuart Sternberg acknowledged, when he hears people talking about his Rays as being perennial contenders that he has to laugh.
"It's almost like we're a given, which should be the furthest thing from it," Sternberg said Tuesday.
"People thinking that you just rub a lamp and 90 wins appear and it should be expected year after year diminishes quite a bit, I think, how special the job that's been done around here by this organization."
Yet as Sternberg talked with reporters during his first visit of the spring, it appears they have done it again, the team on the field behind him widely projected to be a contender, competing for what would be a remarkable fifth trip to the playoffs in seven seasons.
Sternberg spoke, among other topics, about those expectations, an unexpected increase to a team-record $80 million payroll, the potential for a breakthrough in stadium talks, the future of ace David Price and a "great" start to sales of ticket flex-packs.
Here are some excerpts, with more on tampabay.com/blogs/rays/:
• On expectations:
Sternberg starts each spring with a modest goal, to play meaningful games into September. "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," he said.
But though manager Joe Maddon spoke of developing the mind-set that just getting to the playoffs is not enough, Sternberg said he can't think World Series or bust.
"We've got real problems if I'm thinking that; no," he said. "We could've spent $110 million — we couldn't spend it, if we had spent it, we wouldn't have that anticipation. We're out-spent by 2, 2 1/2 X, 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."
On the stadium:
Sternberg said he expected to talk soon with new St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman, but he wouldn't be more specific and is heading home to New York this afternoon. (There was nothing on Kriseman's calendar about a meeting.)
Sternberg said he was "looking forward to hearing what (Kriseman has) learned over the first few months," but "it's kind of hard to have expectations" because eight years of no progress has left him "a little numb." He said he had no timetable for breaking the stalemate, but, promisingly, "I do think things will be different."
On unexpectedly raising the payroll:
After finishing last in attendance, the perception was that the Rays might lower the payroll from last year's $62 million, but instead they raised it, more than even Sternberg expected, re-signing first baseman James Loney ($21 million over three years) and adding closer Grant Balfour ($12 million over two).
"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."
On keeping Price:
Though the Rays didn't trade Price this winter, the speculation will only increase after this season as the ace lefty heads into his last year before free agency. But Sternberg sure sounded open to keeping him around.
"I wouldn't say it's likely his last year," he said. "We've kept a number of free agents and star — high-paid guys — right through the end. So winning still trumps all.
"Unique, talented, I won't say one of a kind, but David is like one of a handful. … We're 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 we're 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."
That doesn't mean, though, that it's more likely they can sign Price long-term, especially with what other aces have gotten. "We'll see," Sternberg said. "It's more difficult now than it was in the past given the numbers. There's been inflation."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.