No matter what Rays do in playoffs, payroll to be reduced in '11

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Despite dropping their last two games to the New York Yankees this week, the Tampa Bay Rays have been among the best teams in baseball all season long.

Entering Wednesday’s action, only the Yankees, Minnesota Twins and Philadelphia Phillies have better records. They have a young, exciting nucleus of players, and the experience of having been to the World Series in 2008.

But despite all of this the Rays average only 23,000 fans per game, ranking 23rd among the 30 teams. The Mariners, Nationals, Brewers and Astros are all among those who draw more fans per game than Tampa Bay.

Because of this, Rays principle owner Stuart Sternberg has some bad news for Rays fans, telling Marc Topkin that payroll will be reduced – potentially significantly – in 2011.

“No question. Nothing can change that,” Sternberg said before Tuesday’s game. “Unfortunately there’s nothing that can happen between now and April that can change that unless Joe Maddon hits the lottery and wants to donate it, or I hit the lottery.”

Sternberg wouldn’t say how low the payroll may go, though he said in spring training it wouldn’t reach even the $60-million range. “I don’t have a plan in mind what the lower (end) is,” he said. “I just know it’s going down.”

The Rays had a franchise record payroll of more than $70 million this season, so a reduction below $60 million is significant. When you consider that Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Rafael Soriano will be among those hitting free agency after this season, and Matt Garza and B.J. Upton are arbitration eligible, something will have to give.

It’s a shame, but it’s also tough to blame Sternberg when you have a great team that “can’t come close” to turning a profit because it doesn’t draw flies. Why should he expect to sell more tickets next year? Clearly he doesn’t, and thus Rays fans face the prospect of a dramatically different team next season, no matter what they do this fall.

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Phillies owner John Middleton is in Las Vegas with Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper
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Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia reports that Phillies owner John Middleton flew to Las Vegas for a meeting with Bryce Harper on Friday. Per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, it’s “more of a meet-and-greet than a sign-a-deal” affair, but as the club is still at the forefront of trade rumors involving the All-Star slugger, there remains a possibility (however slight) that something could be completed in the days to come.

Even now, the Phillies aren’t alone in the race to sign Harper, but recent rumors have helped whittle down the competition from five or more teams (Phillies, Nationals, White Sox, Giants, and Padres) to three strong contenders. The Giants are said to be interested in a lucrative short-term deal with the outfielder, while the Padres remain in the conversation despite inking Manny Machado to a mammoth 10-year, $300 million contract this week. It’s not yet clear just how far either team would go to outbid Philadelphia as talks with Harper intensify.

As for the Nationals and White Sox, the former officially bowed out earlier today, and MLB Network’s Jon Heyman adds that the latter won’t make a strong play for Harper as they feel the asking price and competing offers are “getting too high” for the 26-year-old’s services. If a mystery team is still in the mix, there’s been no word on their standing with Harper in the last month or so.