In Game 2 against the Red Sox on Saturday, Rays ace David Price didn't quite pitch up to his usual standards: seven innings of hard work, seven runs on nine hits. Now a very plausible question: Was that uncharacteristic outing the last time we'll see Price pitch for the Rays?
The series of course is headed to St. Petersburg, and the Rays are tasked with winning three in a row against the best team in baseball in order to advance. In other words, the Sox have at least a 9-in-10 chance of ending the Rays' 2013 season at some point over the next three encounters. Sure, if the Rays win their two home games, then Price would likely be in line to start Game 5 back in Boston on regular rest, but there's a strong chance the series ends at Tropicana Field on Monday or Tuesday.
And that distinct possibility brings us to what our own Danny Knobler wrote not long ago regarding Price's situation:
When this season ends, whenever that is, the Rays are expected to explore trading their Cy Young left-hander. By the time spring training begins, Price will likely be wearing a new uniform.
The reason is simple. The Rays can't afford to sign Price to a long-term contract. By the end of this season, he'll be two years from free agency.
If they want to maximize his value, this is the time.
Indeed, the widespread expectation is that Price will be dealt this upcoming offseason. He's not eligible for free agency until after the 2015 season, but he's into his expensive arbitration years, and, as Knobler reported above, a pricey extension isn't feasible for the small-market, low-attendance Rays. No doubt, Price would fetch quite a haul, particularly with two seasons of team control left on his service-time clock
That the Rays will consider such a move is no secret, and their adaptability and dynamism as an organization is not to be doubted. They've survived the loss of many core contributors since their franchise breakout in 2008 -- James Shields, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Matt Garza, Carlos Pena, others. But what about the homegrown Price, the greatest pitcher in franchise history?
There's yet to be an outgoing part that the Andrew Friedman/Joe Maddon-era Rays have failed to replace adequately, but Price, who's progressed steadily and anchored the rotation for almost the last half-decade, is more valuable than any of those notable names mentioned above. He's made three All-Star teams, won a Cy Young, served as an affable and media-savvy face of the franchise and helped the Rays to four postseason berths despite a remorseless division and bottom-scraping payrolls. He's a first-order ace, simply put, and those are rare indeed.
The reality, though, is that Saturday's battering at the hands of the Red Sox may be the last time we see the quintessential Ray dressed up like a Ray. That'll take some getting used to.