It would take a strong dose of truth serum to know for certain if the Rays entered the offseason with the honest intention of trading David Price. If that is, indeed, the case, then it appears more likely by the day that they will enter Spring Training with the reality of not having found a suitable offer for the 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner.
As it stands, Tampa Bay will have to slot Price back into the top of its rotation -- at a $14 million price that, by the standards of a cash-crazed market in which Clayton Kershaw will now crack the $30 million threshold, is a relative bargain.
Of course, we don't need truth serum to decipher the most likely scenario, which is that the Rays were (and are) on the fence about trading Price and are prepared to be opportunistic if the right offer presents itself. We still have a few weeks before Spring Training, and the Masahiro Tanaka saga has basically brought the rest of the pitching market to a standstill. But generally speaking, this is not the time of year for blockbuster deals, and each day that passes makes it a little safer to say that an offer not only hasn't come but won't come.
At least, not before July.
For a variety of reasons -- ranging from Tanaka's availability to the increased emphasis on young, controllable talent to the concerns about what it will cost to keep Price beyond 2015 -- the market for Price just hasn't ripened.
If anything, watching the Price process play out only adds more credence to the belief that the Rays pulled off an incredible deal for James Shields last winter, when they landed an eventual AL Rookie of the Year in Wil Myers. That type of trade just doesn't come around often anymore. And if you look at the somewhat recent history of trades involving Cy Young Award winners -- from Cliff Lee to CC Sabathia to Johan Santana to Lee (again) to Roy Halladay to Lee (again) -- the returns have generally trended more toward dud than dazzling.
The Rays are all about maximizing their assets, and that means forgoing emotional attachment and always remaining betrothed to the bottom line. Sure, that's a mind-set every small-market franchise must follow, but Tampa Bay has been in a class all its own in terms of applying that mind-set successfully over the course of multiple seasons.
Price is nearing the point (if he hasn't reached it already) where he simply doesn't fit the financial formula, and that leads to difficult decisions. But in talking to other execs this winter, you get a sense of just how methodical and careful the Rays have been with these discussions. They know that if they do move Price, they have to get it right, and getting it right means being creative and aggressive and, above all else, hard to please.
The Rays can afford this stance because, in the back of their mind, they've known all along that if they do decide to keep Price, there are far worse fates. This is a rather rare winter for Tampa Bay in that the club has retained its entire starting lineup from the end of 2013. The Rays' acquisition of Ryan Hanigan to bolster the backstop situation is, in my eyes, one of the shrewder moves of the offseason. They always seem to find a way to piece together an effective bullpen, they've aligned some nice depth in the outfield and their rotation, beyond Price, still has a huge amount of upside, with Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson and Chris Archer in the mix.
I don't doubt that the Rays could compete without Price in 2014. But it's not outlandish to suggest that with him, they could be an AL East favorite, one that will engender legit World Series expectations. FanGraphs.com estimates that Price is worth an additional three wins to Tampa Bay for '14. That might not sound like much until you remember that the AL East had four winning teams last year.
The Rays have always had this fallback position at their disposal, and, increasingly, it appears they'll fall back on it.
Certainly, though, this comes with its own set of heartburn and headaches. Price could have a Cy Young season in '14 and probably not have any more trade value in December than he has right now. Worse yet, he could get hurt (he already endured his first career stint on the disabled list and some velocity decline in '13) and crater his value.
As far as dollars are concerned, although that $14 million figure pales in comparison with the Kershaw contract, it's a major outlay for the Rays. Tampa Bay already projects to have a payroll somewhere in the neighborhood of $75 million, which would be a franchise record. Executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman has called this payroll "unaffordable" given the well-documented attendance struggles at Tropicana Field. It is a credit to owner Stuart Sternberg that the Rays are willing to spread themselves thin in the name of fielding a contender, but there is tremendous risk in dedicating more than 18 percent of the player payroll to a single guy. Especially a guy who pitches for a living.
That's why the Rays' situation this winter has been so vexing, so polarizing, so fascinating. It's not often that a team can be labeled a championship contender in one breath and a potential seller in the next. Tampa Bay has been straddling that line all winter, ready and willing and able to deal its homegrown ace the moment the market materializes.
But it hasn't materialized, and much of the reason has been out of the Rays' control. Barring a late winter (or early spring) surprise, Price will be the one taking the mound for Tampa Bay on Opening Day.
A risky proposition, sure. But an enticing one, too.