PORT CHARLOTTE — With his team gathered in the outfield for a meeting before Wednesday's first workout of the spring, Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg stood outside the circle for a pragmatic reason: so he could see the backs of the jerseys to match the names with the new faces.
While the long-term future, as you may have heard, remains a bit uncertain, Sternberg is optimistic about the present, specifically the way the team that won the American League East for the second time in three years was retooled, in part because of the 40 percent reduction in payroll he ordered.
"I expect us to be very competitive," Sternberg said. "No different than the last few years."
He was encouraging and excited, befitting the occasion. But also realistic, acknowledging that the Rays likely will have to go through this same type of makeover every few years.
"That's been our plan all along," he said. "The art in all of this is trying to time it out as such that it comes together. 2008 came together with a payroll similar to what we have this year; 2009 fell well short with a payroll that was 50 percent higher than 2008.
"Eventually and ultimately this is what is going to give you the greatest opportunity to succeed, especially when teams are spending three, four, five times what you are. There's no doubting a lot of it is timing."
As extremely challenging and frustrating — his words — as the offseason was, Sternberg is pleased with the moves they made and the position they are in for this season and for the next several.
The payroll cut from last season's team-record $73 million to the current $41 million was necessary because they've lost "a ton of money," he said, and is more a product of the game's current economic structure than anything.
Had they not done it now, the impact would have been "dramatically worse" in future seasons, though he did allow that changes to the MLB system and — oh by the way — a new stadium would certainly help.
"You can always spend more; the question is at what cost," he said. "This isn't about spending, spending, spending and then running away from this team. It's about having something that can year in and year out be competitive and do it at a level where we don't go to the poor house."
On other topics during a 30-minute chat with reporters, Sternberg said:
• Comments by former Rays Carl Crawford and Matt Garza about the deflating atmosphere at the Trop due to small crowds have him concerned about an impact on the team's performance:
"That's tough to read that. It's another weight that we're carrying around, and it seems to have seeped onto the field at this point."
• There has been no progress on getting a new stadium:
"It's something that's always a concern with me, but I try to keep it to one or two or three people so it doesn't become a distraction."
• He has no plans to buy, or buy into, the financially troubled Mets, as has been speculated, nor the Dodgers:
"The Mets are owned by the Wilpons, they've been great owners for a long time, they've been very welcoming and helpful to me and, ultimately, our organization. This is their team, and I have no intention of purchasing or looking at purchasing the Mets."
• He would favor changes to expand revenue sharing and limit payrolls, alter the scheduling format and division alignment and further expand the playoffs:
"Any change would be positive for us, so in that respect I think we are holding out the chance that some positive things can happen."
• He expects that the experience of having Manny Ramirez on their team will, at the least, be interesting and, potentially, lively.
"He's coming in with absolutely the right approach, attitude, willingness. I do think it's going to be a bit telling how we get off, how we start April and May, and if we can build on some success. … I think winning and performance goes a long way to making it a better experience for Manny, Johnny Damon, anyone new who's here."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]s.com.