The time is now for Rays to move Price
Put ace southpaw in play while many clubs consider themselves buyers
The mass of clubs bunched together around the .500 mark in the American League this year means that even 40 percent of the season schedule is not nearly enough to draw many meaningful conclusions out of what we've seen so far.
The Tampa Bay Rays, though, are an exception.
Saddled with a 24-42 record, the Rays are 15 games back in the AL East, 11 games (and nine teams) away from the second Wild Card, with a minus-55 run differential that is tied for the worst in the Majors. They give even the most optimistic of souls little reason to believe they're about to turn things around.
And I should know: I was the optimistic soul who picked them to win the World Series.
In my defense, that was before Matt Moore and Alex Cobb joined Jeremy Hellickson on the disabled list, ravaging what looked to be an all-world rotation. That was before new closer Grant Balfour posted a 6.46 ERA and got ousted from the role. That was before Evan Longoria and Wil Myers got off to sluggish starts, and before Myers and his ominous .666 OPS (as sure a sign as any that your season is cursed) hit the DL with a fractured wrist.
Be it in the department of offense, defense, pitching or plain old luck, Tampa Bay just isn't very good this year.
But out of the overwhelming obviousness of the Rays' fate is born an opportunity to restock a system in need of assistance. With the First-Year Player Draft in the rearview mirror and the club's status in the standings as clear as can be, now is the time for Tampa Bay to look into selling, because the trade market, at present, is loaded with buyers looking to break away from the .500 traffic jam.
Naturally, then, this leads to a discussion of David Price. Because while the Rays could entertain offers for veteran position players Ben Zobrist or Matt Joyce or David DeJesus, Price is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing potential players in the summer swap market and would seemingly fetch Tampa Bay its biggest prospect haul.
The word is that, at this juncture, the Rays are willing to listen to discussions about Price, because, well, why not? Executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman has shown a shrewd understanding in the past that players are assets with an expiration date, particularly in a market in which payroll must be closely monitored. Friedman knew he was pushing the payroll limits by keeping Price, who is eligible for free agency after next season, for $14 million this year. But he believed in the composition of this club. And back in the dead of winter, there was little reason not to be on board with that belief.
Now, the equation has changed. Tampa Bay has to dangle Price, if for no other reason than to get another gauge on his market value before the offseason.
Of course, there is a big difference between dangling and dealing, and Price is not necessarily the slam-dunk swap target some might assume him to be.
For one, there is the performance of Price. After Monday's solid start against the M's (with no offensive backing), Price carries a middling 3.97 ERA with an adjusted ERA right around league average, an average fastball velocity (92.8) nearly three full clicks below what it was in his 2012 AL Cy Young Award-winning season and a career-high home run rate of 1.2 per nine innings.
Granted, there are other numbers that are encouraging for Price, most notably a ridiculously good 11.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio that bodes for better days. Price also has two complete games and is averaging more than seven innings per game at a time when the big league norm is less than six.
Any rotation that adds Price would instantly be better for it, and you can make a strong case that even a club like the Oakland A's, who look unstoppable in the AL West, ought to be interested in him as a means of improving their World Series chances.
But as we learned over the winter, when the Rays struck out in their search for an adequate price for Price, teams are ever-reluctant to part with prospects (the acquisition of Myers in the James Shields swap was more exception than rule), and there is a reason why the somewhat recent trades of past Cy Young Award winners like Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, Roy Halladay and R.A. Dickey yielded less-than-instant returns, if they yielded anything at all. And at $14 million this year, with another salary bump before he hits the open market, the cost considerations that come with acquiring Price are major ones.
You couple those facts with the growing industry suspicion that run-producing bats have become more valuable than ace-type arms in today's environment, and you see why Tampa Bay might have trouble fetching a reasonable return for Price as the summer evolves.
So if the Rays are going to move him, it makes sense to move him early, before other clubs have time to identify themselves as sellers and before the value of a guy who only works every fifth day plummets in a crowded marketplace.
Already, Price is joined by the Cubs' Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in the early trade banter. What I wrote over the winter about Samardzija being younger, cheaper and possessing more upside than Price has gained credibility in-season, and Samardzija might actually be the greater of the two trade chips, at present.
The pool could deepen if the Royals decide to move Shields in advance of his free-agent eligibility, or if Lee gets healthy and the Phillies decide to swallow much of the money owed to him. And who knows what other teams will fall back in the pack and look to move an arm before the July 31 Trade Deadline? Tampa Bay also has to consider the difficulty of moving Price this winter, when the free-agent market could be loaded with the front-line likes of Shields, Jon Lester, Max Scherzer and Ervin Santana.
I'm not convinced the Rays are going to find what they're looking for in the Price trade market, but I am convinced this is the time to start searching.