The Tampa Bay Rays have hit rock bottom. With a 24-38 record, this franchise that has consistently overachieved, going back to the surprise American League pennant year of 2008, is last in the AL East. What’s more, the Rays are last in the entire American League—yes, trailing even the mighty Houston Astros coming into Saturday’s games. It begs the question—is it time to throw in the towel and trade ace lefty David Price.
Price’s contract situation has loomed over Tampa Bay ever since he signed a one-year deal in January. The 28-year-old Price will become eligible for free agency after the 2015 season and the Tampa Bay Way has been to deal such pitchers and replenish with young talent—see the precedents set with the trading of Matt Garza and James Shields in recent years.
But while Garza was clutch (2008 ALCS MVP, including a Game 7 gem) and Shields was a horse, Price is a cut above either one. The Cy Young Award winner in 2012, Price has to be a part of any credible conversation about who you’d pick to start one game or to build a staff around. I’m not saying he has to be the answer, but Price has to at least be included in the discussion.
Here’s Price by the numbers over the last four regular seasons…
2010: 2.72 ERA, 208 IP, wins 19 games
2011: 3.49 ERA, 224 IP, wins 12 games
2012: 2.56 ERA, 211 IP, wins 20 games
2013: 3.33 ERA, 186 IP, wins 10 games
Some injuries early in the 2013 season briefly slowed Price up, but he still got near 200 innings pitched in spite of making only 23 starts. His ERAs, even in his down years, are still solid. And keep in mind, he compiles these numbers facing a steady diet of AL East lineups and having to make a disproportionate number of road starts in hitter-friendly bandboxes like the new Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Camden Yards.
It’s for that reason that even when Price gets off to a slow start—as he has this year, with a 4.03 ERA—that you assume he’ll turn it around. And it’s for that reason that Tampa Bay has to tread lightly when thinking about trading him.
There are three questions that have to be answered in making the hard decision on what to do with Price—can the Rays rebound in 2014, can they win in 2015 and what price (no pun intended) do they pay with their fan base if they deal the team’s best pitcher, and along with third baseman Evan Longoria, their signature player.
As to winning this year, I think it’s best to throw in the towel (or at the very least, not let any hopes of a turnaround impact your decision-making). It’s not that Tampa Bay is too far back. They’re eight games out of a wild-card spot (albeit with the entire league to catch). But the Rays have lost starting pitcher Matt Moore for the season, Jeremy Hellickson hasn’t made it back and there’s just no sign that the strong pitching which led me to pick this team to win the AL East this season is going to be healthy all at once.
But accepting those as the reasons for the likely loss of 2014, also means 2015 can be the year. Moore would presumably be back. Perhaps Hellickson can get back in the latter half of this season and start re-establishing himself as the pitcher he was as recently as 2012. Alex Cobb is pitching well This is a pretty good trio to start with in any case, and if you put Price on top, it becomes devastating. It becomes a rotation that can win you a World Series.
Tampa Bay’s attendance is notoriously poor, and if it weren’t for displaced Red Sox and Yankee fans jacking up the numbers when those teams visit each year nine times apiece, it would look even worse. There’s not going to be a huge outcry if you trade Price, simply because there won’t be enough people to start the outcry to begin with.
But if this market is going to succeed as a major league market—which it is certainly more than capable of, how is that ever going to change if the front office keeps cutting the rug out from under a real World Series shot?
I don’t mean to dismiss the organization’s real concerns about keeping Price (which they probably can’t, following 2015) and their need to replenish the farm system. But at some point all this excellent player development has to be cashed in and you have to have a year where you just go for it.
For Tampa Bay, “going for it” doesn’t have to mean spending more on free agents or big money acquisitions at the trade deadline. It can just mean going into 2015 knowing it’s your last ride with Price. If the year collapses, there’s still room to trade him at the July 31 deadline in 2015. But for now, take a shot at greatness.