In a move that is as much about holding on to a small fan base as it is an acknowledgment the franchise is headed...

In a move that is as much about holding on to a small fan base as it is an acknowledgment the franchise is headed for a rebuilding phase of sorts, the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays are maintaining or reducing prices on more than half their tickets next season.

The Rays, who have won the AL East in two of the last three seasons and reached the World Series in 2008 but are expected to slice their payroll dramatically this winter, announced recently that the tickets to more than 60 percent of the seats at Tropicana Field would stay the same or fall in 2011. The most notable change is a $1 increase for the most inexpensive seats — from $8 to $9 for tickets in the upper box and upper reserved sections — but making those seats available to 30 games as part of the “silver” package after selling those seats to just five games as part of the “bronze” package in 2010.

Senior vice president Mark Fernandez told the St. Petersburg Times the Rays will offer a million tickets at $25 or less, including silver package $17 outfield seats and $21 baseline box seats.

“We’re staying really consistent with being one of the most affordable teams in sports,” Fernandez said of the Rays, which were dubbed “the most affordable professional team in professional sports” by ESPN in 2009.

The Rays will offer four pricing tiers, down from five last year. Prices for the 30 silver tier games — all of which are weekday games — range from $9 to $210. The gold tier — 29 weekend games — will feature prices from $12 to $255. The 13 platinum tier games, which include all nine games against the New York Yankees, a weekday series against the Boston Red Sox June 14-16 and Opening Day against the Baltimore Orioles, will cost anywhere from $17 to $275. And the nine diamond games — six weekend games against the Red Sox and a three-game interleague weekend series against the St. Louis Cardinals — will cost fans between $19 and $300.

The Rays are also expected to place tarps over the top of the upper deck, which will reduce the seating at Tropicana Field by about 2,500 to around 34,500, which would be the lowest figure in Major League Baseball. The hope is that such a move will increase demand at the Trop, where the Rays welcomed just 23,025 fans per game — the sixth-lowest average in the American League, the ninth-lowest in MLB and the lowest of any playoff team.

Fans who visit the Trop next year will see a far different team than the one that was eliminated from the playoffs by the Texas Rangers in the decisive fifth game of the AL Division Series Tuesday, October 12. While the Rays will return one of the most exciting young cores in the league — including third baseman Evan Longoria, who finished sixth in the American League MVP voting, and ace pitcher David Price, who finished second in the AL Cy Young Award balloting in his first full major league season — and feature one of the most fertile farm systems in baseball, they are expected to lose several veterans to free agency and may have to trade a few more in order to maintain a payroll in line with their market size and attendance figures.

Superstar Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Pena and closer Rafael Soriano are all expected to leave as free agents while set-up man Joaquin Benoit has already signed with the Detroit Tigers. In addition, shortstop Jason Bartlett and starting pitchers James Shields and Matt Garza have all been the subject of trade rumors.

The Rays had a payroll of almost $72 million last year but owner Stuart Steinberg said in February the 2011 payroll would be far smaller. “It [won’t] be $70 [million] and it won’t be $60 [million],” he said on a radio show.