NEW YORK -- As he walked off the mound at the end of his most recent start, last Wednesday against the Pirates at Tropicana Field, Rays left-hander David Price tipped his cap and waved. Just in case, he explained afterward, it was his farewell outing at home.
Well, that's been the assumption, hasn't it? That the Rays, stuck in last place with the American League's worst record, would trade their ace for a bucketful of top prospects before the non-waiver Trade Deadline that's now just over four weeks away? It's how the shrewd small market Rays have, more often than not, been able to compete with the deep-pocketed clubs. Even Price, in his public statements, has seemed resigned to that outcome. The focus was on where he'd go and when, not if a deal would happen at all.
And, yeah, that's probably how this will end up playing out. Still, there was a subtle but noticeable note of hopefulness in Price's voice in the visitors' clubhouse at Yankee Stadium on Monday afternoon as he prepared for Tuesday night's start in the Bronx.
With their 4-3 win in 12 innings Monday night, the Rays have the second-best record in the AL (12-7) since June 11. They have, in short, been playing suspiciously like the team many predicted would win the division this season. Plus, between now and the All-Star break they also play the first-place Blue Jays, first-place Tigers and Wild Card-contending Royals. It is both a gauntlet and an opportunity for a team that seems to be finding itself in a division no team has really taken control of.
Price is realistic enough to understand the speculation will continue regardless.
"I don't think it will decrease any of that stuff," Price said. "But it could decrease the chance that I do get traded. I know there are going to be stories written and speculation no matter what. But if we continue to play good baseball and continue to win, we feel like we have a shot. And I think that would lessen my chances of being traded."
He even offered a bold prediction when asked what his gut feeling was.
"We're playing well right now, so I do expect to be here," he said.
That could have been his brain talking, but it sounds more like his heart. And there are reasons to suspect that the die has already been cast. Within the last couple of days, Rays general manager Andrew Friedman told The New York Times: "I think, in a lot of ways, [trading Price is] our only chance for success."
Price is ready for whatever happens next. It's not as though he hasn't been through this before. Heck, he admitted he was surprised he's still in Tampa Bay after an offseason when rumors were rampant and fans of other teams kept tweeting how much they hoped he'd be coming to their town.
"To be honest, I've kind of prepared myself for this day for a couple years now," Price said. "I didn't want it to happen, but it's something that I've definitely thought about. It's been in the back of my mind, if not in the front of my mind at times.
"I've prepared myself for it the best that I can, because I still don't know the feeling and emotions I would feel if it does happen. It's part of the business and I completely get that. These guys are great owners. They run this to the best of their ability and they've done it extremely well. I don't think the fan base or any of the players can really say anything bad about it, because they've put us in positions to win, whether they traded guys or kept guys. [James] Shields and [Matt] Garza -- the trades they've made have made us better. At times, it doesn't seem like it does, but at the end of the day, it kind of does make us better."
Rays manager Joe Maddon agreed that it makes sense to believe that the more the Rays win, the less the likelihood Price could be traded. But he also hinted that conventional wisdom doesn't always carry the swing precincts.
"Any organization, any team, would logically tell you exactly that," Maddon said. "But it always surprises me when a team loses a couple games right about now and then they'll back off because they've lost some games at the end of June. You either commit to one thing or another. Of course, if a team gets hot and the needle starts pointing in the right direction, it may alter the way groups think. There's no question about that. But I'm more intrigued by the groups that may lose three or four games and all of a sudden call off the jam.
"But I can't argue with the point. I think it's a typical baseball assumption."
Stranger things have happened in baseball. It was 100 years ago that the 1914 Miracle Braves, in last place as late as July 18, ended up winning the World Series. A lot has changed since then, though. But it's difficult to imagine enough changing between now and July 31 to keep Price in the only big league uniform he's ever known.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.