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Biggest key to Rays 2019 success? Getting some relief, according to owner Stuart Sternberg

Sternberg said they like who they have, but can make in-season additions. Also, the cash-less Trop was his idea.
Principal owner Stuart Sternberg says the Rays have a chance to shine this year. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]
Principal owner Stuart Sternberg says the Rays have a chance to shine this year. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]
Published Feb. 20, 2019
Updated Feb. 20, 2019

PORT CHARLOTTE – He really likes the pieces they added during the winter, topped by Charlie Morton. Has his eyes on infielders Daniel Robertson and Joey Wendle as key players to improve. Is excited to see what outfielder Tommy Pham can do over a full season and fingers crossed Kevin Kiermaier stays healthy for one.

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg shared plenty of reasons Tuesday for his optimism in the Rays being good enough to win at least 90 games and thus be positioned to compete for their first playoff spot since 2013.

But he also revealed his greatest concern, which comes with a certain irony attached since it happens to be the one area they didn’t address – the bullpen.

RELATED: Rays owner Sternberg says they could have been more aggressive in Ybor stadium talks

"All those guys and everybody could do everything they’re supposed to, but if the bullpen is not there it all turns to garbage,'' Sternberg said. "And if the bullpen does its job, and we’ve got a lot of pitchers who we believe can throw well, I think we’re going to be in really great shape this year.''

The Rays have options, confident that someone, or several, from the group of Jose Alvarado, Diego Castillo, Chaz Roe and current opener Ryne Stanek will become reliable options to close out game.

And they have faith that there’s potential for one of the young arms, such as Ian Gibaut and Colin Poche, to develop to join them.

But they don’t have a sure thing, which would be a nice shiny accessory for a team that seems to play more close games than anyone.

Thing is, they could.

Or about as close as there is in the game, with Craig Kimbrel still on the free agent market.

He’s only 30, has averaged 41 1/2 saves over the last eight years, spent the last three in the midst of the American League East battles with the Red Sox.

Sure, he had his shaky moments, especially in the postseason. But those 333 career saves, that 91 percent conversion rate, that 1.91 ERA still have considerable value.

The problem is, it comes with a cost. And one that Sternberg indicated – without ever saying Kimbrel’s name – was too steep, reportedly in the six-year, $90 million range (plus a draft pick), which would be a big gulp for a team with a payroll of about $50 million that looks to be the majors’ lowest.

“There’s a guy sitting out there now, but I’ll be frank with you it’s too much money for us,’’ he said. “It’s just too much money. I’d take him tomorrow if it was in a range we’re going to be able to afford and make a difference. But sorry, it’s not happening. No $15-20 million (over multiple years) closers are walking through the door.’’

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That doesn’t sound good for those, including a few in the Rays clubhouse, who were hoping to see Kimbrel stroll in, as Rafael Soriano did for the 2010 season just days after Sternberg said “there is no $7 million closer showing up.’’

But of some consolation, Sternberg said there will be an opportunity for in-season adjustments.

So if they are wrong about the young guys handling the bullpen, they could still go get a proven closer. Similarly, if they need the big bat they pursued but deemed too expensive in Nelson Cruz, they could add another. (Or, depending on whether the Twins are in the race, maybe even Cruz, who signed for $14 million.)

“I think this year we’re in a great position,’’ Sternberg said. “I have an expectation that if the team is performing and doing what it can be and the division hasn’t been run away with, by July I would expect and believe that our baseball guys will certainly have the opportunity to add players at that point. I’ve always tried to maintain a posture to be able to deal with some success and I think we’re in a great position to deal with some success in June and July.’’

Sternberg, during a 30-minute media session, also said:

* He feels “great” about the team going into this season: "Any year that the Tampa Bay Rays can come in with an expectation, or I have a belief, that we can be a 90-win baseball team — can be, not will be, should be, ought to be — we sign up for it and feel great about it. I think we can be a 90-win team again. Whether it bears out, or we end up winning 75 or 94, that’s why we play the games. ... Our goal is to get to 90 and see where that leaves us.''

* Last year completed an organizational rebuild following the post 2014 departures of baseball operations chief Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon, and he was pleased with their overall success in the majors and minors: "It was a ’10′ of a year for us.’’

* Making Tropicana Field cash-free was his idea – “Guilty as charged; all on me” - and despite negative response remains convinced fans will find it beneficial.

“This is something I’ve been focused on the last couple of years,’’ he said. “I knew it was too early to implement last year. I wanted to do this this year. Nobody appreciates the use and concept of a paper bill as much as I do. So you say, “well if that’s the case why won’t you have it.’ It will be a problem for a handful of fans at times. We are going to over-service those people. We will go out of our way to make sure that they can walk away from it and go “wow, this really is better.’ Now, having said that, the 87 percent of people who use credit cards are going to see a dramatic improvement in how much quicker the lines move, and the ease of transaction and having their transactions show up and know what they spent and how they spent.

“There’s no question the world is going to be there five or eight years from now. Did we do it too soon? Potentially. I’m a believer in doing things a little sooner than waiting as you know. I have faith in our fans and most importantly faith in our fan hosts and all the people who work in the Trop that we’re going to over-service those people who have those needs.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.