David Price: Staying or going?

  • Jayson Stark [ARCHIVE]
  • ESPN.com | July 24, 2014

You can mark this down: The Tampa Bay Rays aren't going to trade David Price.

Well, not today anyway. And not tomorrow, either. And not this weekend.

Why would they? Why should they? The trading deadline doesn't arrive for a week. They're the hottest team in baseball. And there's no reason they shouldn't wait to make this momentous decision.

For a few days, anyway.

So that's what the Rays are doing, according to clubs that are talking to them. They're waiting until next week. Hoping their team, and the standings, will give them a clear signal between now and deadline day of exactly how they should play this.

David Price
AP Photo/Kathy WillensRays left-hander David Price (4-0, 0.85 in July) is a hot commodity as the trade deadline approaches.

But here's the problem with waiting: Five days from now, six days from now, even by the morning of July 31, they could still be faced with a nearly impossible quandary:

How can they be sure they will really close enough -- to first place or the wild-card lead -- to know unequivocally that they should hang on to Price and go for it. They can't, of course. But they're finally healthy, and playing so well, that even the playoff-odds column on the standings page -- which currently gives them a 10.4 percent chance of reaching October -- doesn't feel like an accurate guideline.

"The problem with that," said one exec whose team is in a similar boat, "is that those odds are based on if you played it out a million times. But we're not going to play it out a million times. We're going to play it out one time. So it's either going to happen or it's not."

So will they or won't they trade this guy? Based on the vibes they're sending right now, the honest truth is this: Even the Rays don't know yet. But we all know the factors they're weighing. So let's help them out, by breaking this down for them ...

The standings

A month and a half ago, this wasn't even a debate. On June 10, the Rays were 24-42. Worst record in baseball. A 0.1 percent chance of making the postseason ... 15 games out in their division ... and 11 games behind the second wild-card spot. With an entire league's worth of teams to pass.

It couldn't have been more obvious what they had to do back then. Could it? No team in that situation would hang on to Price. Would it?

So the Rays -- and their ever-calculating executive vice president for baseball operations, Andrew Friedman -- began moving in that direction, laying groundwork, honing in on teams they matched up with, until ...

That other Rays team showed up. And got this thing all mixed up.

Think about how their world has changed. They were 18 games under .500 then. They're four under now. They won 24 of their first 66 games. They then won 25 of their next 36. That's insane.

Since June 10, they've gone 25-11. Best record in baseball. They've carved their wild-card hole to 4.5 games, with only four teams to pass. They've narrowed their AL East deficit to seven games. And whatever words you'd use to describe them right this minute, "dead" certainly wouldn't be one of them.

But now let's remember who they are. This may be the most analytical team in baseball. It isn't a team that has gotten where it has gotten because it's run by people who make decisions like this with their heart. They make shrewd, calculating business decisions. And they're about to make another one.

So they don't just have to determine whether they think they're going to be the best team in the AL East from here to the finish line. They have to determine whether they're going to be seven games better than the rest of their division over the next two months.

And if not, is it worth hanging on to Price for a chance -- and, frankly, not a good chance, mathematically speaking -- to play one wild-card game, probably in Anaheim, to make keeping Price worthwhile?

If that's the essence of this decision, other clubs believe that unless they rip off, say, a 5-1 week against the Red Sox and Brewers, the Rays are still more likely to sell than hold. But of course, there's another half of this equation. It also depends on ...

What they're offered

It comes down to this, said a rival executive: "If they get the right offer, I'm convinced they'll move him. They've really built their team by making these kinds of deals. But if the return they can get now is something they think they can get this winter, they'll hold him."

So what are the odds of that? What are the chances the offers for Price won't change appreciably between now and December? Hmmm. Almost zero, you would think.

When the Rays hung on to Price last winter and took him into this season, they clearly believed he'd have just as much value this July as he did last winter, if they were in a mode to move him, because he could still have an impact on two pennant races. But by next offseason, you know that would be no longer true, if you're subtracting along at home.

So one exec we surveyed estimated his trade value this winter will be "30 to 40 percent" less than it would be right now. And when you really think this through, that's a major hit -- in either quantity, or quality, or both.

On the other hand ...

This is also a team that believes it can win next year, especially if it could trot Price out there 33 times. And remember, history has shown us the Rays don't trade everybody in this situation.

They didn't trade Carl Crawford. They didn't trade Carlos Pena. They like winning, too. And this is their window. So they are making it clear to every team they've talked to:

They don't have to trade their ace. Not now. Not even in December. And they will walk away from any deal if they don't get what they need to make it worth their while. You might not believe that, but other teams do. Those teams have told us repeatedly: They do not think Friedman is bluffing when he says that.

Which means the Dodgers, Mariners, Cardinals, Giants and the rest of the Price shoppers need to be ready. If the Rays open for business next week, this is going to have to happen fast. And it's going to be expensive. Here's how we'd handicap the field:

DodgersLos Angeles Dodgers: Still the favorite. They have a $241 million payroll. So who has more at stake than they do? They're shopping for pitching. And a Kershaw/Price/Greinke October rotation would be ridiculous. But the Dodgers have told teams all summer they're not including both Joc Pederson and Corey Seager in any deal. And if they don't, there's an excellent chance the Rays walk away. So do the Dodgers relent? "If they're going to ante up for anybody," said one NL exec, "they're going to do it for Price."

MarinersSeattle Mariners: The second choice. Other teams view the Mariners as potentially the most desperate shopper out there. But desperate for what? They need a bat more than they need another ace. And Price's agent, Bo McKinnis, already has told them Price isn't interested in signing there long term. So there's a lot working against them targeting Price, starting this package with Taijuan Walker and blowing up their system for a year-and-a-half rental. But here's what could still drive them to do it: This is their time. King Felix has never been more dominant. Robinson Cano's decline phase is right around the corner. "So they have this opportunity," said one exec. "It makes no sense to sign Cano if you're not going to back it up. Does it?" Uh, no, actually -- not when you put it that way.

CardinalsSt. Louis Cardinals: It's been a long, long time since the Cardinals made a July blockbuster anything like this. (Matt Holliday in 2009? Scott Rolen in 2002?) But they're in a mad four-team scramble in their division, they're dealing with significant pitching injuries to Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, and they're as motivated as ever to win. So can they convince themselves to include Oscar Taveras in a package, if it means getting the single biggest race-changing figure on the market? "They rarely make these kinds of deals," said one GM. "But they're also rarely in this position."

GiantsSan Francisco Giants: Suddenly stepping up their pursuit of starting pitching, given all the uncertainty about Matt Cain's prognosis. But the Giants still seem like a long shot to make a deal of this magnitude, because they can't fit Price's projected $20 million salary into their 2015 payroll and because they lack the impact megaprospect it would take. Nevertheless, no one should underestimate Brian Sabean this time of year. Ever.

Blue JaysToronto Blue Jays: Just about no shot at this point. For one thing, the Rays have no real desire to trade Price within the division. Second, Toronto is another place with close to zero chance of signing him long term. And, finally, other teams say the Jays have told them they can't take on money. "I don't quite understand how they can not have money now after having $14 million to offer [Ervin] Santana in the spring," said one exec. "But that's what they're saying."

So take a deep breath. That's where this stands. And that's where it's going to stand for at least the next few days. But Price's decision day is coming. He might be staying. He might be going. But nobody knows which until next week. Even the team that has to trade him. Or not.

Ready to Rumble

Phillies

The Rays are one team the rest of the sport will be watching closely over the next week. The other is the Phillies, who have up to nine players available but are having trouble finding a match for most of them. One theme we've heard from every team that has talked with the Phillies: They're willing to eat some contract money to get the players back they want. But they're not going to dump contracts just for the sake of freeing up money. "They need prospects. And they really need position-player prospects," said an exec of one team that has spoken with them. "They're not looking to save money."

Let's run through the Phillies' trade chips.

Most likely to get traded: Marlon Byrd, with the Reds, Royals and Mariners all scouting him heavily. Byrd has pretty much been anointed the best bat on the market. And don't chuckle. The only right-handed-hitting outfielders with more homers than his 19 are Nelson CruzGiancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout and George Springer. But there are issues with all three clubs most closely linked to him. Byrd's limited no-trade clause allows him to block deals to Kansas City and Seattle. And the Reds may not be able to take on the $3 million left on Byrd's contract this year. So every one of those deals would be a challenge.

Jonathan Papelbon: Hard to say who was more hopeful this was the optimum time to move Papelbon elsewhere -- the Phillies or Papelbon himself. But even though he'd only been scored on twice in his last 37 appearances before the Giants roughed him up on back-to-back nights this week, sources say he's unlikely to get dealt. He's not going anywhere to set up. The Tigers and Orioles -- two teams often connected with him -- were never looking for new closers. And his money ($13 million next year, plus a $13 million vesting option for 2016) and speak-his-mind reputation aren't helping his marketability, either.

Cliff Lee: Looks more and more like an August deal waiting to happen. And he will get through waivers. "Nobody is claiming that guy," laughed one exec. The Phillies are motivated to move him. But with at least $45 million left on his contract and his recent two-month stay on the disabled list, teams are wary of giving up real prospects, even if the Phillies pay down his deal. "He scares me," said one exec. "Maybe if he was going to be a free agent," said another, "I could see taking a chance. But not with that contract."

Cole Hamels: Is he out there or not? Well, it isn't quite accurate to say he's "not available," because the Phillies have told several teams what it would take to get him. But they've all come away believing the Phillies asked for a package no one would possibly give up. "They're not trying to trade him," said one exec. "They're trying to see if they can get overwhelmed to trade him." And there's no indication that's going to happen.

A.J. Burnett: As Jerry Crasnick reported this week, Burnett prefers to go back to Pittsburgh if he's going to get moved. But sources say the Pirates would need assurance he's going to retire and not pick up a player option that could pay him as much as $14.25 million next year if he makes 30 starts this season and next. So that's a potential obstacle to that reunion. Meanwhile, the Orioles' interest appears just lukewarm. And the Yankees told the Phillies, "No, thanks."

Jimmy Rollins/Chase Utley/Ryan Howard: The Phillies have shown zero interest in moving Utley. But multiple AL teams say they've been offered Howard for practically nothing, and they've all said, "Not interested." So those two are staying put. Rollins, on the other hand, has been dangled selectively to clubs that might need a shortstop. And one team that hasn't totally ruled it out is the Giants. But two sources termed that deal a "long shot" and "complicated," because it would involve the Giants moving Brandon Crawford to second base and Rollins waiving his trade-veto rights. So it would be an upset if that deal actually went down.

Antonio Bastardo: Left-handed hitters are 7-for-50 against him, with 16 strikeouts (but 10 walks). So add Bastardo to the massive list of middle relievers who will get traded in the next week. At least a half-dozen teams are still in play on him.

• One more note about Tampa Bay: If the Rays decided to sell, it wouldn't just be Price they're selling. Other clubs say they've been informed that if they light the "sale" sign, the Rays would "be very open on a number of fronts." In other words, they'd listen on Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce, Yunel Escobar and others. But they don't seem particularly interested in packaging Price and Zobrist in the same deal, despite some rumors the Mariners were exploring that option.

Tigers

• How did Joakim Soria rise to the top of the Tigers' bullpen shopping list? The Tigers looked into "every reliever who's breathing," said one club that's spoken with them. And Soria, Joaquin Benoit and Steve Cishek would have been nearly perfect fits. But the Padres and Marlins don't seem as motivated to move Benoit and Cishek as many people assume. And the Tigers are on the hook for $10 million to Joe Nathan next year. So they were never in the market for the closer controversy that Papelbon would have represented, even if the Phillies digested nearly his entire contract.

Orioles

• Here's another team you can cross off your list of alleged closer-shoppers. Clubs that have spoken with the Orioles report they're "not looking for somebody to replace Zach Britton." What is on the Orioles' shopping agenda: a starter they'd consider an upgrade, and a left-handed reliever who is more than just a left-on-left guy. But teams that have asked about hot pitching prospects Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey say the Orioles aren't interested in moving either.

• Teams that have talked to the Royals say they have called on just about every right-handed hitter who might be available. But they're mostly focused on right fielders, which means their options essentially come down to Byrd, Alex Rios, Dayan Viciedo, Chris Denorfia and possibly Zobrist. But the White Sox would want an extra return to deal Viciedo in the division. And it's doubtful the Royals would see Denorfia's one homer and .612 OPS as much of an upgrade. So other clubs expect the Royals to zero in on Byrd and Rios in the next week and make the best deal they can make.

• It would be a surprise if the Pirates don't add at least one pitcher, and maybe two, in the next week. But if they add a reliever, it won't be someone who would supplant Mark Melancon as their closer, or even Tony Watson as his primary setup man. They've kicked the tires on a long list of potential seventh-inning arms. And they also could deal for a starter, but only an A.J. Burnett type who would represent at least a No. 3 starter in their rotation.

• With every loss and every zero on the scoreboard on the break, the Reds get more motivated to add a bat -- preferably a right-handed bat. Dollars are an issue, as always. But if the Rays sell, pay attention. Zobrist would be an ideal fit, as a guy who could plug second base while Brandon Phillips is out and then shift to the outfield or even shortstop once Phillips returns.

Astounding Facts of the Week

We're devoting this section exclusively to sweet-swinging Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner this week. Why? Because he's already hit two grand slams this season. And here's why that's such a fun topic:

• Because the Dodgers -- all of them -- have hit zero grand slams this year.

• Because the other four teams in the NL West have hit three slams combined this year.

• Because both of Bumgarner's slams came at AT&T Park. And all the position players who have played there this year have hit one slam -- and that one was by Buster Posey, an inning before Bumgarner's second slam.

• Because Bumgarner is just the second pitcher in history to hit two grand slams in one year. The other was the Braves' Tony Cloninger in 1966. Want to guess how many slams all Braves pitchers have combined for in the 48 years since Cloninger hit two? ZERO. Of course.

• And because it means Bumgarner has now hit more slams in half a season than all these guys hit in their entire careers: Prince Fielder, Kevin Mitchell, Bob Horner, Ian Kinsler and (yep) Derek Jeter. Seriously.

So we asked Bumgarner about his slam expertise at the All-Star Game last week. He laughed and said: "All these guys are telling me, 'Do you know you have more grand slams than Derek Jeter?' And I say, 'I can't believe I even CAME UP with the bases loaded twice in one year.'"

Tweets of the Week

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