The 2014 non-waiver trade deadline is this Thursday, just as the MLB playoff race is gaining significant momentum after the All-Star break. Several of the top clubs are starting to separate themselves from the rest of the league, but others are at a crossroads, making potential deals more complicated.
Chief among the latter are the Tampa Bay Rays, whose recent nine-game winning streak got them back into the American League postseason hunt.
They have a chance to gain a lot in return for pitching ace David Price. However, they could keep the young star and perhaps vault into World Series contention based on their recent form.
Below is an examination of the buzz surrounding Price and the other top stars rumored to be on the block, along with predictions as to where they'll land.
David Price, P, Tampa Bay Rays
Suddenly just 4.5 games out of the final wild-card spot in the AL, Tampa Bay has a decision to make that could change the course of its franchise.
Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post Dispatch reports that the St. Louis Cardinals are interested in landing Price:
Price's contract doesn't expire until after the 2015 season, so the good news is that whoever is in the running to get him won't be receiving a mere rental in the hunt for October glory. But with the way the Rays have struggled to generate offense at times this year, they would have to get a monstrous return for Price to justify letting him leave town.
Jayson Stark of ESPN, who names the Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants as other potential suitors, documented a rival executive's testimony regarding Price.
"If they get the right offer, I'm convinced they'll move him," said the executive. "They've really built their team by making these kinds of deals. But if the return they can get now is something they think they can get this winter, they'll hold him."
ESPN's Buster Olney pointed out how unique Price has been with his knack for getting ahead in the count right away, contributing to his 11-7 record with a 3.08 ERA and 1.04 WHIP:
A crafty, powerful pitcher of Price's caliber is just not easily found. Unless the Rays don't have faith that their current foundation—combined with the assets they stand to inherit in the years to come—can't deliver a championship, parting ways with Price makes sense.
The recent hot streak, though, should lead Tampa Bay to hesitate at least until the offseason to see how Price and the club finish out. Manager Joe Maddon is quite the tactician and has done a good enough job to shape the small-market Rays into one of the MLB's better teams in recent years.
Tampa also has to feel a sense of pride, given its situation in the AL East. Bad blood looms with the Boston Red Sox. Another high-payroll outfit in the New York Yankees is just one game off the last wild-card spot, behind the Toronto Blue Jays, who've spent a lot to get to this point.
It's high time the Rays played to win, especially since there isn't a salary cap to worry about. To compete in the East, they will have to spend considerably more, within reason. Price, the MLB leader with 183 strikeouts, is an excellent place to start.
Prediction: Price remains with the Rays.
Jon Lester, P, Boston Red Sox
The reigning World Series champions have little chance to make the postseason, as they are in last place in the AL East. With that comes the opportunity to get a big return on an ace like Lester.
Dealing away the underperforming and aging Jake Peavy to the Giants was one thing; letting Lester loose is quite another matter. Lester even supported Peavy upon his exit:
Olney reports that the Red Sox would indeed consider trading Lester, whose contract is expiring following the 2014 campaign:
Save for a rocky 2012, Lester has been trending in the right direction and has been rather consistent since becoming a full-fledged starter in 2008. In 11 career postseason starts, the 30-year-old southpaw has a WHIP of 1.04 and a 2.11 ERA.
General manager Ben Cherington had the following to say recently regarding Lester's future, per ESPNBoston.com's Gordon Edes:
You guys know how I feel about Jon. We're certainly happy that statement [on a possible return to the team if traded] reflects how he feels about the relationship. We feel good about our relationship with him. Our position hasn't changed. We certainly look for Jon to be here in 2015.
It's rare to find a player with both the championship experience Lester boasts and the composure to play in such a big market with so much history and a massive fanbase. His ERA stands to drop by one full run for the second year in a row, as he's posted a 10-7 record with a 2.52 ERA and 1.12 WHIP.
But that means Boston may not be able to sell as high on him. Contracts should project future success rather than reward what a player has accomplished to date. Perhaps the Red Sox are thinking that way and are thus waffling on committing to Lester beyond this year.
There couldn't be a much better scenario for Lester to hit the road. The best part is he could very well go to a contender, maintain his strong play and wind up with another World Series ring.
Lester has shown professionalism amid trade rumors and a tumultuous season to pitch extremely well throughout. It may be hard for Red Sox fans to see him go, especially since according to WEEI Lester has said Boston is where he wants to be. However, he is likely gone at the deadline.
Prediction: Red Sox trade Lester to a contender.
Matt Kemp, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
A crowded outfield rotation and a tight race with the Giants for the National League West title may force the Dodgers to make some major moves before the final stretch of the regular season.
"Eight years is a long time to be in one place,” said Kemp's agent, Dave Stewart, per CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman. "Sometimes change is good. This might be the time to change."
Speaking of Lester, he may become a factor in LA's thinking to upgrade a pitching staff that already includes Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, a currently injured Josh Beckett and Dan Haren. Edes cites a club source in reporting the Red Sox are mulling a trade for Kemp.
Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports fortified the link between the two teams with his latest update on Lester:
Yes, his injury history is a red flag, but Kemp's talent is nevertheless tantalizing. His departure would also alleviate the pressure on manager Don Mattingly dealing with a surplus of firepower in the outfield.
Other teams should gravitate toward Kemp, too. Heyman's report also suggests there are as many as five teams interested in Kemp.
Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles.com points out how Kemp (.277 average in 95 games with eight home runs and 40 RBI) may be rounding into form at the perfect time for a team to feel comfortable acquiring him for the long deal:
Kemp doesn't come cheap. He will enter next season in the fourth season of an eight-year, $160 million contract, per Spotrac.com. That would be a lot of beans for Beantown to take on, though they are one of the few clubs that have the means to do it, with the substantial risk included.
There aren't a lot of other viable destinations for Kemp to go based on that logic. Shane Victorino won't be around beyond 2015, while Jackie Bradley Jr. and Brock Holt are both in their mid-20s. Either of the latter two could be attractive, young assets if Boston felt it was improving by netting Kemp.
The opportunity for Kemp to be embraced with greater appreciation, produce more and still play for a storied franchise makes Boston an ideal landing spot.
Whether Lester is part of the trade—or if the Red Sox think Kemp is enough to net in return—will likely be the crux by which a prospective deal is discussed.
It appears the possibility is at least on the table. Since the Dodgers already rank second in baseball in quality starts, predicting Lester to be in LA is a bit bold. No other specific links have been drawn to other teams, though that could change in the coming days rather quickly.
Kemp is a great fit in Boston, though, and it would not be a surprise to see him there before the trade deadline expires.
Prediction: Kemp is traded to the Red Sox.