If the Tampa Bay Rays were supposed to be playing the part of a team open to trading David Price, their best starting pitcher two years away from free agency, their offseason moves suggest they didn't get the memo.
MLB.com's Bill Chastain reporting that the team has signed closer Grant Balfour to a two-year, $12 million contract is the latest in a string of additions that pushes the Rays all-in to win in 2014.
Tampa Bay owner Stuart Sternberg essentially said as much during Balfour's introductory press conference on Thursday:
When you see the opportunity for somebody like [Balfour], the way the payroll has grown around it, in some respects, this is the price of success. If you didn't have these kinds of players, you'd be looking at a whole different kind of payroll.
Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times provided another nugget from Sternberg about Price's status for next season:
Even though Sternberg's wording there does leave plenty of wiggle room, when you combine it with his actual quote, it's not hard to figure out that the Rays are planning to win big this season.
Analysts such as Jesse Spector of Sporting News assumed the Rays were going to trade Price this offseason because they traded James Shields to Kansas City last winter with two years remaining on his contract.
Examining the Shields trade, however, it was a very special circumstance. The Kansas City Royals were offering Wil Myers, who ranked as Bleacher Report's No. 4 prospect entering 2013 and had all six years of control remaining.
Knowing they had pitchers like Price, Chris Archer, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Hellickson in the rotation for 2013 also had to influence the Rays' decision to trade Shields.
When healthy, Price is one of the best pitchers in baseball. He won the 2012 AL Cy Young Award and finished second in voting in 2010. He's just 28 years old, three years younger than Shields was when he was traded last year.
The Rays don't win big in 2014 without Price. They've already got Price on the books for this season after signing him to a $14 million contract to avoid arbitration.
If Balfour's signing isn't enough to convince you that Price isn't going anywhere, take a look at this list by Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal of players the Rays have added through trades and free agency:
#Rays added Balfour, Bell, Forsythe, Hanigan. Re-signed Loney, Molina, seven-arb eligible players. Not vibe of a team about to trade Price.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 24, 2014
It's not as dynamic or exciting a group as the Yankees signing Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka, but by Tampa Bay standards, it qualifies as a spending spree.
And why shouldn't the Rays be opening their wallets and feeling optimistic about 2014?
Let's assume that the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox are still the team to beat in the American League East next season.
The Rays only finished 5.5 games behind the Red Sox in the division before meeting up in the American League Division Series. If not for a wild pitch from Joel Peralta in Game 4, the series potentially could have gone back to Boston for a decisive Game 5.
They will also have a full season from 2013 AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers, who had 36 extra-base hits in just 88 games.
Pairing him with Evan Longoria, who stayed healthy for the first time in three years and had 74 extra-base hits, gives the Rays a heart of the order they haven't had since Carlos Pena was blasting 39 homers behind Longoria in 2009.
Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer continue to grow into a formidable young trio. Moore allowed just 119 hits with 143 strikeouts in 150.1 innings. He has to get more control (76 walks) to realize his full potential, but the pieces are there.
Cobb was fantastic in 2013 with a 2.76 ERA and 134 strikeouts and a 2.98 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22 starts. He ate Cleveland Indians alive in the postseason, scattering eight hits in 6.2 shutout innings to get the Rays a date with Boston.
Archer had the third-highest fastball velocity (95.0 mph) in 2013 among pitchers with at least 120 innings pitched, trailing Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg.
Balfour will take the place of Fernando Rodney, who spent the last two years as Tampa Bay's closer and saved 85 games, at the back of Tampa Bay's bullpen. The 36-year-old Australian knows the Rays well, having pitched for the team from 2008-10 before moving to Oakland and playing there for the last three years.
While with the Oakland Athletics, Balfour saved 62 games and struck out 144 hitters in 138.1 innings since the start of 2012.
For all the money the Yankees have spent this offseason, depth is still a problem. As Richard Justice of MLB.com noted, they are still relying on players over 30 like Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda to carry them.
Keep in mind that Jeter and Teixeira played a combined 32 games last season. Sabathia had the worst ERA (4.78) and home run rate (1.19), tied his lowest strikeout rate since 2006 (7.46) and had the lowest average fastball velocity of his career (91.1).
The Rays understand that their window, while very narrow because of their financial limitations compared to the big guns in the AL East, is still wide open as long as Price is in town.
Adding Balfour is the ultimate exclamation point for the Rays to say that they aren't going to let past moves dictate what they do.
Don't get used to the Rays spending as freely as they have this offseason—at least by their standards. As Sternberg says, however, sometimes you have to leave your comfort zone for a chance at immortality.
In an era where we are used to seeing small-market teams trade their most valuable assets when their price tags escalate, it's refreshing to see Tampa Bay not only keep its best trade chip, but keep adding pieces around him as well.
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