- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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It isn't every December, at the winter meetings holiday gift fair, that 29 general managers can grab a shopping basket and find a 28-year-old Cy Young Award winner sitting on the shelves.
But that's the deal (literally) this week, as the Tampa Bay Rays embark on a mission they've dreaded for months, maybe even years. The time has come -- for them to work seriously to trade their favorite ace, David Price, while his trade value is as high as it's going to get, with a gazillion-dollar trip to free agency now just two years away.
You know the Dodgers will be visiting their showroom. And the Rangers figure to be standing in that line. The Mariners have almost openly advertised how interested they are. The Diamondbacks are actively shopping for an ace. And the Braves, although dollar-challenged, have long been intrigued by Price.
If you're looking for a team that could whoosh in out of the clouds, we've heard buzzing about the Padres, who scouted Price heavily last year, and the Cubs, who hired Price's old college pitching coach (Derek Johnson) a little more than a year ago.
And if you had a creative, conspiratorial mind, you could easily concoct scenarios where the Angels (if they moved lots of money), Tigers (if they find themselves forced to trade Max Scherzer), Blue Jays (if they could pull some sort of sneaky three-way deal to keep Price in the AL East) or Phillies (who seem to collect Cy Youngs for a hobby) would have the motivation, if not the prospects and financial resources, to at least kick the tires.
So you would think, with all that interest, that the Rays could wind up trading Price any minute now. But clubs that have spoken with them get the clear sense that their crafty executive vice president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, is in no hurry to make what will be arguably the most important deal in franchise history.
"I get the feeling Andrew is playing this kind of like an agent who is biding his time," said an executive of one team that checked in. "He's doing this in deliberate fashion, to try to get the price up as high as it can go. And then I could see him pulling back ... and waiting for the need of all these teams [to do something big] to get even greater as the offseason goes on."
Other clubs say Friedman is simply doing what he does as well as anyone else in his field -- creating leverage with a smart, careful negotiating stance that will force the bidders to come to him, not the other way around.
And we could sum up that stance in six words: "We don't have to trade him."
A better translation for that approach probably would be, "We don't have to trade him now." But that's just semantics as it applies to this week.
Price is the ace of a team that has won 90-plus games four years in a row (the longest current streak of 90-win seasons in baseball, by the way). So what's the worst thing that can happen if the Rays don't trade him this week, this month or this winter? He can help them win another 90-plus next year. And Friedman is guaranteed to tell every team in this auction that he's fine with that, just the way he was with keeping Carl Crawford.
"The guy can't be a free agent for two more years," said an executive of one club. "So technically, [Friedman] can argue that he doesn't really have to move him until July of 2015. That's a long time from now."
And technically, the Rays also can afford to pay Price over the next two years if they choose to, although it would force them to make sacrifices in other areas. Teams and agents we've surveyed expect that if he goes year to year, he would earn between $30 million to $37 million in his final two seasons of arbitration eligibility, depending on how well he pitches next season. And that's not crazy money, not in an era when Scott Kazmir is collecting $11 million a year.
So the approach other clubs are hearing from Tampa Bay is: "If we don't get exactly what we want, we'll keep him. Period." And they admit that if the Rays were to drop Price into the July trading-deadline market, they could actually end up raking in a bigger return than they'd get if they deal him right now. So they can wait, even if they'd prefer not to.
"One thing about Andrew is, he never acts like he has to do something," said one of the executives quoted earlier. "And that's because he never does. … They're always trying to win, but they never have to win. Not the way the Yankees have to win, or the Dodgers have to win, or the Red Sox have to win. They don't have to, because they're never expected to. They win 90 every year, but people never act like they're supposed to.
"So he's in a great spot. He will work it until he gets the very best deal he can make."
But, on the other hand …
"He says he doesn't have to trade him, but realistically, he does," another rival executive said of Friedman. "They're not going to pay the guy $20 million-plus [in 2015] as a five-plus arbitration guy. Their whole model is built on trading these guys and replenishing [their depth of high-end young talent]. And they're going to do it again with Price. You know they are. That's what they do."
What the Rays actually do, because it's what they need to do to survive, is spend life in a never-ending balancing act. In column A, there's the long term. In column B, there's the short term. So whatever they get back for David Price has to do such a spectacular job of maintaining their ability to torment the Yankees and Red Sox over the next five years that it makes it worth their while to give up the chance to win a World Series by keeping him next year. Got it?
So when you hear one interested party say, "Andrew is going for the Herschel Walker trade," you know the Mariners would pretty much have to start the bidding with Taijuan Walker. And the Rangers would have to understand they can't keep Jurickson Profar and make this deal. And if the Dodgers won't talk about someone like Corey Seager, they won't get far, either.
Now it's true that, as Insider's Mike Petriello wrote on this site the other day, there have been very, very few trades -- of former Cy Youngs or any other starters -- that got that big or included prospects that glittering. And when you add in the unlikely scenario that a team trading for Price would have a chance to negotiate an extension first, it makes those elite prospects even harder for any team to include.
So regardless of that history, regardless of modern baseball economics, how can this team wade into the Price waters and not come away with at least that much -- especially when you consider the mediocre state of the rest of the starting-pitching market?
Ask yourself this: Which starter would you rather have -- Price or Ubaldo Jimenez? Price or Matt Garza? Price or Ervin Santana? That's the gap between what the Rays are dangling here and what interested teams can buy for dollars alone this winter. Never forget that.
So as this week and this winter roll along, Friedman will do what he always does when it comes time to make a trade like this:
He will set the bar high. He will target what he wants. And he's not going to budge -- certainly not this week.
"Why would he?" asked one NL exec. "All he's got at stake is Price's health. The only downside to keeping him is if he gets hurt. And he's not going to get hurt in December. So he's got every reason to take his time."
Which makes winter meetings week an excellent time for all the teams in this chase to start their Christmas shopping. But will Price be a Mariner or a Ranger or a Dodger by week's end?
Based on the way other teams are talking? Unless, say, the Mariners get the same desperate look in their eyes they got when they signed Robinson Cano, we'd bet this will be the only opening episode in a drama that still could take weeks to unfold.
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