Stuart Sternberg: Rays are willing to spend more in right situation

Also, a peek into their thought process on why standing pat is bad, as was Pat Burrell, and other things they’ve learned.
Tampa Bay Rays Principal Owner Stuart Sternberg, right, with U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, during a Rays playoff game against the Houston Astros in October.
Tampa Bay Rays Principal Owner Stuart Sternberg, right, with U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, during a Rays playoff game against the Houston Astros in October. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 11, 2019|Updated Dec. 11, 2019

SAN DIEGO — Principal owner Stuart Sternberg said he expects the Rays 2020 payroll will go up from last year’s major-league low $62 million, but how much will be a product of who they want to spend it on.

In recently swapping Tommy Pham, one of the key players in their lineup, for the less established Hunter Renfroe, the Rays freed up about $5 million. Rather than simply say that money would be reallocated, Sternberg said it is relative to needs and potential impact of the additions. In other words, no surprise to Rays fans, they’re not just going to spend the money because they have it.

"I don’t really look at it that way,'' Sternberg said. "I know it sounds good, because he was scheduled to make this, and Renfroe is going to make, that that gives us money to spend or not. Look, perfect example, if we needed a shortstop, (Didi) Gregorius, I guess, just signed for $14 million (with the Phillies). If he was $10 million, we’d sign Gregorius. Whether we save the money with one guy or not, if it’s going to make us better, and it’s a need for us, and it’s somewhat in a sense of what we can afford, we’re going to do it.

Related: Sternberg aims for split with Montreal in 2028

"But saving money we might have had on Pham and reallocating it, we’re not going to reallocate it just because it’s there.

"But by the same token, we anticipate this year spending more money than we did last year. We anticipated that, we expect that. So now it’ll be more, but it’ll be just spent a different way. It won’t be spent on Tommy Pham obviously.''

Sternberg provided an interesting peek into the team’s methodologies during a wide-ranging talk with Tampa Bay media at baseball’s winter meetings.

For example, when asked how much more they’d spend, he said — hours before Gerrit Cole agreed to an MLB record nine-year, $324 million deal — that it was all relative.

"If you told me I could have Cole for $25 million I’d sign him. So I’ll spend $30 million more. If Cole and (free agent third baseman Anthony) Rendon would each sign for $25 million, I’d spend $50 million more. But it’s not happening. It’s all a question of who’s available and at what price. ...

"My point is that as much as we do have a budget, it’s a very wide range, and the range is from $40 (million) to $80 million. I can spend 40. If there’s nothing there. ... If we could trade our four best players and get 10 best prospects in baseball and we ran a $35 million payroll, I would do in a heartbeat.

"I’m only saying it to illustrate it. We’re not trading (Charlie) Morton and we’re not trading (Blake) Snell. I would tell you the first thing, if it wasn’t a slap--- prospect and I could trade Blake Snell for three Wander Francos, and Morton for two Wander Francos, I’m spending a lot less money this year. That’s just really the way it goes.

"Conversely, if there were guys available who fit us and would make us a much better team, but were a really good value, like Morton was last year. If we don’t sign Morton last year our payroll is high 40s. It doesn’t mean we’re going to go allocate the $15 million to somebody else. We probably would have spent a little more.

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"But truth of the matter is if we didn’t have Morton we don’t make the playoffs last year, we don’t win the games that we ended up winning. But by the same token if everybody stayed healthy and we don’t have Morton, you probably still win 94-95 games last year and we would have a $48 million payroll.

"So we’re very open to spending. We believe we’re going to spend money. But clearly we’re going to fish in a pond we’re used to fishing in. The nice part is we don’t have to think about the Rendons and (Stephen) Strasburgs and all these other guys. We can focus on on the guys that are in our wheelhouse.''

Sternberg also addressed why the Rays are constantly changing and churning their roster, such as trading Pham, who had a solid season but was due for a hefty raise to around $8.5 million.

In short, "We’ve learned that standing pat isn’t necessarily an ideal way to operate.''

In more detail, he explained their thought process, going back to the start of this past season.

"We came off a 90-win season the previous year and we thought we had a very good opportunity for 2019 to improve on it, or at the very least win 90 games again,'' Sternberg said. "As much as you might want to plan to win 100, you can’t. So we were trying to have a 90-plus winning team. We obviously executed on that as it turned out, through some adversity, but also through some good performances.

"And the thing we get taught year after year and, I learned it initially back in ’08, we had a great season in ’08, we won 97 games or so. And we figured, okay, we’re going to add a little here and there, the younger guys are going to get a little older, because we had a very young team at the time. And how could you not improve on that? And then 2009 comes around and the team fell as flat as ... a very disappointingly flat year. we made a signing in the offseason of right handed bat — which again, everybody, we’re looking for a righthanded bat possibly — Pat Burrell at the time for the uninitiated of you, so you just don’t know.

"One year to the next, a lot changes. The Red Sox, the year before win the World Series, a hundred and how many games that they won, 106 or something. They come back, they make a point of coming back with the same team, and you look at these guys, and they win 85 this year. So, you know, stuff happens. And to the best-laid plans.

"So with that as a background, and I like to use what’s happened with us and we try to make mistakes and learn from them, we’ve learned that standing pat isn’t necessarily an ideal way to operate.

"And when you have success, you’re more apt to stand pat. And when you have a bad situation, you’re just more apt to blow things up. Neither are good scenarios.''

As a result, they make deals as they did with Pham, picking up a key prospect in Xavier Edwards.

"So we go into each offseason with a measured approach, as we say, one eye on the present, one on the future,'' Sternberg said. "Clearly, the trade we just made with Tommy Pham was an eye to the future. It remains to be seen how it’ll work out presently, but it’s hard to imagine us with that trade being a better team in 2020, having traded Tommy Pham. Those guys aren’t out there. There’s no other Tommy Phams walking through the doors as I’ve said before about closers. And they don’t grow on trees.

"The reason why we were able to make a deal that worked for us is because a guy like him was very much in demand. And because of that, I don’t want to say “forced to,” but our DNA is about doing things that are going to keep us in a good position where we currently are — perhaps a better position, perhaps a little worse you can argue — but also making us demonstrably better going forward.

"And that’s, has been, for better or worse, the secret to our decade-plus long history of pretty good successes. Given our limitations or not, we could have spent twice ... Obviously most every team in baseball spent more than us last year. And many of them spent a lot more. And very few had as much success. So there is a correlation. But the only reason we’re able to do that is because we make some very difficult decisions. And we continue to make those difficult decisions. Trading Tommy Pham is a very difficult decision. But now we have plans in place and things will try to do. And we’ll try to execute them.''

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.