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Rays' dilemma as winter meetings open: Keep Price or deal him?

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Published:   |   Updated: December 9, 2013 at 07:11 AM

ST. PETERSBURG — Now the baseball world turns its eyes toward Andrew Friedman and David Price, currently joined as top members of the Rays organization, but soon to be parted if you believe the rumors out of Seattle or those out of Los Angeles or the ones emanating from Arizona and Pittsburgh.

Price, the ace of the Rays' talented pitching staff, will be the most talked about player at this week's winter meetings, which begin Monday at the Walt Disney World Swan in Lake Buena Vista.

That is because Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, is in the enviable position of holding the biggest trade chip this offseason — Price.

The big splashes were made last week as teams signed free agents by the hour. The mega-deal to Jacoby Ellsbury and the reported mega-mega-deal to Robinson Cano had the baseball world spinning.

Now Price is on the clock.

“Every player has a shelf life with their organization,” former New York Mets general manager Jim Duquette said. “The expiration date for Tampa Bay is a little bit shorter than other organizations, obviously.”

If you follow the model the Rays' front office has used to produce four playoff teams in six seasons, it would appear the time is now to move Price for an armful of prospects to keep the minor-league system stocked and, yes, to save payroll.

“Andrew has a model that works, but there's basically no margin of error,” Duquette said. “So when you get to this point (with Price) you absolutely have to explore it.”

Price is 28, the 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner. He is left-handed and throws hard.

He has the ability to transform a team like the Pirates into a World Series contender.

He has the potential to turn a World Series contender like the Dodgers into World Series champions.

The Mariners, who just shelled out a 10-year, $240 million contract to Cano, are believed to be looking toward Price to help push the team into contention in a competitive American League West.

“It's just a matter of who's the most desperate, that's why we go back to Seattle,” Duquette said. “That's one of the teams who are desperate. They have the prospects and the ability to sign (Price).”

Interesting note: Price has pitched in 152 major-league games, none of those at Seattle's Safeco Field.

When asked last week during a conference call for an update on Price's status, Friedman said, “I think the most overarching comment that I always make when asked about specific players is simply said: Our goal is to be as good as we can be in 2014 and be as well-positioned as possible to sustain that success into the future. Certain players make that much more difficult than others, and so it's just something that we weight and balance in everything we do every day of the year.”

Price is the kind of pitcher who will fetch the Rays a handsome package in return, filled with high-end prospects and maybe a major league-level player to enhance the Rays' pursuit of a fifth playoff berth since 2008.

On the other hand, Friedman will be trading away the club's top pitcher, the most talented pitcher to ever wear a Rays uniform.

Wouldn't the pursuit of a fifth playoff appearance in seven seasons be better served with Price at the top of the rotation?

Of course it would.

So the next question is: Why trade David Price?

The obvious answer: Because that is how it works around Tropicana Field.

Matt Garza had two years of arbitration remaining when he was traded after the 2010 season. James Shields had two years remaining on his contract when he was traded last offseason.

Price has two more years of arbitration before he becomes a free agent. He is projected to earn at least $13.1 million for the upcoming season.

That is a lot of money for a low-revenue team like the Rays to invest in one player, especially a player who plays every fifth day, and especially a player who can bring so much in return.

The case to trade Price

The Rays knew they would reach this crossroad with Price the minute they made him the top pick in the 2007 draft. All that was needed was for Price to fulfill expectations, and he did.

That he is projected to earn close to $30 million during the 2014 and 2015 seasons means he will be heading to a team with a deep payroll and a deep farm system.

Since Price is a legit No. 1 pitcher, Friedman can ask for more of a return than what he received last December when he traded Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City for four prospects, including outfielder Wil Myers.

Myers, the 2012 Minor-League Player of the Year, was named the AL Rookie of the Year last season and helped the Rays reach the American League division series.

“You have to get Wil Myers,” Duquette said. “You have to get the other team's Wil Myers, and not every team has a top-10 prospect like him, so (the trade market) gets limited in that sense.”

Price's age and major-league service time combined with his resume and potential should bring a richer return, one that might include a major-league player along with prospects.

A trade with the Mariners could bring top pitching prospect Taijuan Walker, a 21-year-old right-hander who had 160 strikeouts in 141 innings last season between Double-A and Triple-A and made three starts with the Mariners, and possibly second baseman Nick Franklin, who just completed his rookie season and is under team control for another five years.

“Taijuan Walker has to be in the deal with Seattle,” Duquette said. “He can help your major-league club right now.”

A trade with the Rangers could bring prospects and 22-year-old left-hander Martin Perez, who recently signed a very team-friendly four-year, $12.5 million deal, or first baseman Mitch Moreland. The Rays do need a first baseman.

Trades such as those would fulfill Friedman's goal of helping the Rays in 2014 and beyond.

“From Andrew's standpoint, if he gets the same kind of take he got for Shields plus (a little more), you have to do it even if you don't want to, even if it's not going to help your major-league team,” Duquette said.

The case to keep Price

The rotation of Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer and Jeremy Hellickson would look better if Price was at the top.

“You're taking a huge chunk out of this rotation. Nobody can replace the Cy Young,” Cobb said early in the offseason when asked about the possibility of Price pitching elsewhere in 2014.

Friedman, as he does every offseason, feels he will put together a team that will contend for a playoff spot this season. He's confident Cobb, Moore, Archer and Hellickson, and maybe Jake Odorizzi or perhaps a more-experienced fifth starter picked up later this offseason, will give the Rays the rotation they need to carry the team to October.

Friedman would be even more confident with Price still in the picture.

Also, $13 million will not break the Rays.

The payroll, just under $40 million now in committed contracts, would be near $60 million if Price stays. While owner Stuart Sternberg said in late September that he expected a lower payroll in 2014, he is always willing to give Friedman more money to spend if it is on the right player.

Friedman could hold on to Price this winter and trade him by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline if the Rays are not in playoff contention. Teams are more likely to overpay if they feel the trade will bring them October glory.

But, given the two-wild-card playoff format and the Rays' recent history of making the postseason, that scenario might not pop up. So Friedman will find himself in this position again next season, and teams might not be so inclined to fork over a handful of prospects for a player who will make around $16 million and will be a free agent after the season.

The time to strike appears to be now.

Friedman, as he has since the end of the season and probably earlier than that, will listen to every offer. That he could keep Price for another season will allow him to be patient.

If no team meets Friedman's asking price, then Price is on the mound March 31 at Tropicana Field when the Rays open the 2014 season against the Blue Jays.

But there are not many people in and around the game who believe that will happen.

rmooney@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7227

Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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