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New kid needs to step up

First, there was Aubrey Huff. Then Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford. Now, we have seen B.J. Upton. One by one, the young guys in the Devil Rays organization have stepped forward.

So, and feel free to mock the optimism, perhaps it's time to see the young guy in the ownership group do the same.

Stu Sternberg need not make a splash. Rookies seldom do. But his first offseason with the big-league club is approaching, and it would be nice to know how serious he is about winning.

The payroll has to go up, and Sternberg has to contribute. It does not have to be Yankees ostentatious. Or even Red Sox gaudy. Simply a small commitment to prove the past seven seasons have not been suffered in vain.

We're not asking for the world. Just a starting pitcher. And maybe an infielder with pop. We're willing to work with you on this, Stu. You can choose anyone you like, provided he's not named Alvarez or Castilla.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't a call to action for action's sake. We've seen that, and it doesn't solve a thing.

This should be the next part of a larger plan. The plan the Rays have been developing from the moment the Hit Show was shut down.

The first step was stripping the roster of salary. (Just our luck, that was the one area in which the Rays were savants.) The next was stockpiling the farm system. (They haven't done too badly there, either).

Now, if you look closely, you can see it has paid off. The players have room to grow, and the payroll does, too.

Which brings us to the next step. The one that turns this activity from a shuffle into a dance.

For the first time in a long while, the Rays are ready to add some outside pieces. And not just the type you pick up at Steinbrenner's yard sale.

"We're getting closer," manager Lou Piniella said. "You can add to this right now and it will show immediate results. It's ready.

"You notice, we spent a part of this season in third place. That tells you, if you add, you can make improvements. Because, right now, we're just not good enough to maintain it for the whole year."

This doesn't mean the Rays need to, or even should, go on a spending spree. The roster is not ready to contend in 2005.

But it is time to carefully move beyond the promotions from Durham and the castoffs from elsewhere. It is time to consider which available starting pitchers might be worth a three-year, $16-million deal.

Even if ownership believes the target date for the playoffs is 2007, the growth must begin now. You can't make the leap in a single offseason. The Orioles made that mistake this season and they're still below .500. You have to pick your spots and begin adding pieces over a two- or three-year window.

Tampa Bay's payroll is currently in the $23-million range. It'd be nice to make it to $40-million, but we'd settle for $35-million.

Give Piniella and GM Chuck LaMar that much extra, and they should be able to get the Rays in the 75-win vicinity. Increase the payroll to $45-million the following season, and you have a .500 club.

By 2007, Baldelli, Crawford, Upton, Scott Kazmir, Dewon Brazelton, Jorge Cantu and Delmon Young will still be under Tampa Bay's control. And, with the right veterans added along the way, the playoffs should be in sight.

For too long, Vince Naimoli has carried the water alone. Say what you will about his abrasive manner, Naimoli at least burns to see the Rays succeed. That's far more than you can say for his since-departed partners.

Now, supposedly, there is a kindred spirit in the owner's suite. Sternberg has the money and the enthusiasm to make it work.

Based on his portfolio, we have to assume Sternberg knows his way around an investment deal. Which means he should see everything you see. That having Baldelli, Crawford, Young and Upton means nothing if you don't take advantage of the small window of opportunity when their salaries are relatively low.

No one is asking him to spend foolish money. But it would be just as foolish to not spend any at all.

By growing in increments, the Rays will put themselves in position in '07 or '08. They will also win favor with fans along the way. And they may convince a Piniella or a Huff to stick around beyond the next year or two.

Franchises such as the Rays are not capable of contending on an annual basis. Just as we witnessed with the Lightning and the Stanley Cup, the reality is low- revenue teams must be savvy enough to pick their moments.

Having said that, the hour is not quite here.

But it is approaching.

And plans must be made.

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