David Price is the most talked about man in baseball right now.
Dubbed "arguably the best starting pitcher to be available on the trade market since Tom Seaver" by The Wall Street Journal's Michael Salafino, Price is natural trade bait. The thinking goes like this: His contract with the Rays extends only to next season, after which he is likely to walk away for a team willing to overpay for his late prime and postprime years. Since the Rays are unlikely to be able to afford him, they'd be better off trading him for cheaper, high-upside assets now. Plus the Rays are currently in fourth place in the AL East with a losing record, so they have little to lose.
It's true the Rays could get a lot in return. Price could be the difference-maker for teams like the Mariners and Angels, who are chasing the Oakland Athletics. He could be valuable in the NL Central division. The so-called best fans in baseball spent the early part of this week trying to charm Price. The Dodgers have invested so much in winning now, perhaps they would make a sweet deal for Tampa, too.
And he's still kind of a bargain, earning $14 million out of an $81 million payroll for the Rays, the seventh lowest in the majors, just behind the Madoff-wounded Mets.
But the Rays should keep him. He's the most important part of their culture, and together the Rays and Price can be the most compelling story of baseball's September stretch. Besides, trades like these often don't yield much.
David Price is the most admirable big-time pitcher in the game, in part because he continues to evolve and improve. He came up throwing like Doc Gooden, but now he's turning himself into Greg Maddux. When David Price debuted in 2008 he was a flame-throwing fastball/slider pitcher. He looked like exactly the sort of guy who could burn out after four or five hot years. The hard slider is a pitch associated very closely with Tommy John surgery. But since that time, even since his ridiculous Cy Young campaign of 2012, he's been pulling back on the slider in favor of a curveball, a change-up, and a fastball that sinks.
This season he is pitching to a very impressive 10 strikeouts per nine innings rate. Because he has taught himself to be far more efficient in his approach to the strike zone, he's averaging over seven innings per pitching appearance, without overtaxing his arm. He's giving up a few more hits, but he's one of the top five strikeout pitchers in the league, and one of the bottom five in giving up walks. His ERA has improved every month this season.
The Rays have been the best team in their division for six weeks now. They've earned their shot at competing the rest of the way. On June 10, the Rays had the worst record in baseball: 24-42. Since that day they are the AL's third-highest scoring team. They've gone 25-11 while playing some of their best baseball. And they're getting their young pitchers healthy again. So now the Rays are 4.5 games out of the Wild Card race, and only 7 games behind in one of the weakest divisions in baseball. And more improvement is on the way. Grant Balfour only just realized he had been tipping pitches.
Trading Price means giving up on a winnable season, when a pennant race or even a playoff series — which the Rays cannot plausibly do without him — could be of immense benefit to the maturation of younger Rays players like Jeremy Hellickson and Jake Odorizzi. How much did Price gain himself from the Rays' 2008 playoff run? In the Rays' case investing in the present can also be an investment in the future.
The Rays also have the option of trading him during the offseason, when teams are not as bunched together in active races, after fan bases and GMs feel the crushing regret and pressure of a squandered opportunity. Teams have shifted to a strategy of hoarding the talent they have, and have become parsimonious about trading their cheap, high-upside prospects. Combine that with the historical record of underwhelming trades for aces in the past, and the case is made.
But there's a final reason. The Rays should also keep him because just he's so likable and is such a fitting piece in their organization. Price is a true enthusiast for the game itself, and a diehard for his own team. He is the roaring personality of a team culture dedicated to never giving in, and believing it can go on a monster run. The Rays have obviously convinced themselves that the only way to stay together is to win. And they've done it. Trading David Price for a few prospects is a betrayal of that culture that the Rays can't afford.