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His words, so Sternberg owns them

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 7, 2010

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Until he actually has to make the decision, one wonders whether Tampa Bay owner Stuart Sternberg means it when he says “money won’t be an object’’ in the Rays’ pursuing a piece or two to bolster their team at the trading deadline.

If what Sternberg said yesterday is true, then the Yankees and Red Sox should be worried.

The Rays have prospects, and they have B.J. Upton to dangle, as chips in trades that could land them a significant player. There were at least 15 scouts here last night, and many were already gauging what the Rays had and whether that could land them someone like Seattle’s Cliff Lee.

It appears the Rays need a hitter more than a pitcher, but Lee would give Tampa a true No. 1 starter. And who better to teach David Price how to throw strikes?

Upton, of course, has been an enigma to the Rays. A gifted athlete, the proverbial five-tool player, he’s never been able to emerge as the player everyone expected him to be. The Rays could investigate a hitter like Corey Hart; they’ve been forever in search of a true right fielder.

Sternberg, who has been trying to get a new stadium in vain so far, left plenty of outs in his statement. He said the team would try to improve “by any means necessary,’’ but also indicated that money could be an “impediment,’’ and that whatever the team does now has to be weighed against the future. One can interpret all that any way one chooses, but to this reporter it means, “OK, if we get Cliff Lee, we’re not going to re-sign Carl Crawford.’’

“We’re well beyond stretched [payroll-wise], but for me personally, this is a very special year, it’s a special team, can be a special team, and we’re going to do whatever we can . . . to try to give us the best opportunity to win this year,’’ Sternberg said.

The larger question is what does this mean for the Red Sox and Yankees?

It’s possible both teams were like most of the rest of us and believed the Rays’ lack of a war chest would restrict their trade deadline movement.

This is why Sternberg’s words are somewhat shocking. This bold declaration of saying “we’re in the trade game’’ is pretty significant. It’s something you’d expect to hear from John Henry, Theo Epstein, and Larry Lucchino, or Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner. Not from Sternberg.

After Tampa acquired closer Rafael Soriano, its payroll rose to $72 million, and at that point the Rays made it sound like they were about at their limit.

“Our eye is really about making the postseason,’’ Sternberg said yesterday.

A look around the ballpark last night didn’t provide a resounding backing to what Sternberg said.

Even with the Red Sox in town there were a lot of empty seats at Tropicana Field. There were 28,000-plus on hand Monday night, not a bad crowd here. All of the Rays’ ownership efforts, it seems, have been devoted to coming up with a new ballpark, preferably in the Tampa area. Sternberg also has talked about the concept of a regional team. All of this requires money. And the chances of taxpayers footing the bill for a team they are not crazy about aren’t good.

Perhaps this is Sternberg’s way of trying to create more interest in the team. Beating out the Red Sox and Yankees would seem to go far enough in doing that. After the Rays made it all the way to the World Series in 2008, there was certainly a boost in interest. The days when there were many more Red Sox fans at the Trop than Rays fans are subsiding. There are more cheers for the Rays now than for the Sox.

“We’re all very competitive and want to give ourselves the best chance to play as deep as we can this year,’’ Sternberg said. “But, and it’s a big but, it costs a lot of money to do that, as it has, and we have resources with players that we have, [but] we have to be cognizant of what it means to our future.’’

And Sternberg again made it clear that if the Rays indeed “go for it’’ this season, that they’ll pay the price down the road.

Carlos Pena is playing himself out of a multiyear contract not only in Tampa Bay, but anywhere, unless he has a huge resurgence in the second half. Crawford is having a great year, offensively and defensively, but his days in Tampa seem to be numbered, especially if the six-year, $100 million numbers he’s seeking are to be believed.

Sternberg said “it remains to be seen’’ if the Rays can afford Crawford.

Every team has that window of opportunity to win championships. The Rays are currently in theirs, as are the Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies, Angels, Dodgers, Twins, White Sox, Cardinals, and Braves. These are teams that could add pieces every July and become instant contenders. We know the Red Sox and Yankees are willing to get in the game at the trade deadline, but until now, we wondered about the Rays.

When scouts from other teams were told of Sternberg’s words they seemed surprised.

“If they mean it, they may have stepped ahead of several teams because they have the chips,’’ said one NL scout.

Indeed. Besides Upton, the Rays always could deal one of their young pitchers like Wade Davis or Jeremy Hellickson, who is 11-2 with a 2.21 ERA in Triple A Durham. Or outfielder Desmond Jennings, who is supposed to be Crawford’s heir apparent, who is hitting .296 with 20 steals in Durham.

We’ll see if Sternberg is saying what people want to hear, or whether he’ll put his wallet where his mouth is.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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