The Tampa Bay Rays are currently 8.5 games out of first place in the AL East and just five games behind in the wild-card hunt.
They are a talented team with good, young pitching, versatile offensive players and emerging young weapons in the bullpen. They are athletic, resourceful and only getting better, as is evidenced by their 17-6 record in the month of July.
Yet in the aftermath of the 2014 trade deadline, the Rays face an even more difficult road ahead than the one that laid before them on July 1, when they found themselves 12 games under .500 and 9.5 in back of the AL East lead.
Now the Rays must answer a difficult question: Can they finish their comeback story without their ace and arguably their best player, David Price?
Yes, baseball’s biggest deadline move saw the Rays’ longtime ace head to Detroit in a three-team swap with Tigers outfielder Austin Jackson heading to the Seattle Mariners and Tigers pitcher Drew Smyly, prospect Willy Adames and Mariners infielder Nick Franklin all going to Tampa Bay.
The motive behind the deal was obvious: acquire as much MLB-ready talent as possible for Price before he became too expensive for the Rays to roster next year.
Though still under team control for 2015, Price is projected to earn between $18-20 million through arbitration next year, as Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times noted. His $14 million salary for 2014 is already a Tampa Bay club record.
Whether the Rays got a fair return for Price is up for debate. Many analysts, such as Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh, Sports Illustrated’s Albert Chen and ESPN.com’s Keith Law (subscription only) panned the trade for Tampa Bay. Others, such as FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron, liked the move for the Rays.
Regardless of how you feel about the deal, though, it’s hard to argue that the Rays just got worse in 2014, even if this move better positions them moving forward.
Using Baseball Prospectus’ rest-of-season projections, here’s how Price stacks up against the two main players acquired for him, Smyly and Franklin:
|Player||Current WARP||ROS WARP|
On paper, then, this deal shouldn’t damage the Rays too badly. They lose about 0.5 WARP, according to Baseball Propsectus, and the above projection seems fairly unkind to Franklin. Plus, when you’re using an inexact metric such as WARP, a 0.5 gap can be lengthened or narrowed very quickly.
What’s less quantifiable is the impact this message sends to the rest of the team, as well as what the Price-to-Smyly downgrade will do for the Rays’ bullpen, or how they'll match up against other team’s aces down the stretch.
The Rays’ rotation now stacks up as Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Smyly and Jeremy Hellickson: a good young staff, to be sure, but one with plenty of question marks nonetheless.
Bill Chastain of MLB.com spoke to the Rays’ new de facto ace, Cobb, who had this to say:
The feel in the clubhouse has been passed down to us. It's been established many years ago. It's just our job to continue that. It's a good thing we've got going. I'd say the only thing that we have to do as a group, when we do have new guys coming in, just welcome them. Let them know that the No. 1 thing is to feel comfortable here. Nobody walks on eggshells around here.
Rays manager Joe Maddon expressed a similar sentiment.
"I hate losing David, absolutely,” Maddon told Topkin. “He's one of the best teammates I've ever been around. But you can't lament that, you can't worry about that, and you keep moving it forward.”
Rays’ personnel may be saying all the right things, but it remains to be seen what impact the Price deal will have on the clubhouse moving forward.
Indeed, it’s somewhat difficult to find recent historical precedence for what the Rays have done in dealing Price while on the periphery of contention. Many teams trade away good pitchers, but in recent years few have sent a pitcher of Price’s caliber away in midseason when they were competing.
In 2009, the Cleveland Indians dealt Cliff Lee to the Phillies when they were 11 games back in the division and 17.5 games back in the wild-card hunt. And in 2008, the Indians were 14.5 back in the AL Central and 15 back in the wild-card race when they dealt CC Sabathia to the Brewers.
In 2012, the Milwaukee Brewers were 10 games back in the wild-card hunt and 14 games back in the division when they traded Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels for a package headlined by Jean Segura. Milwaukee finished the year 83-79, 14 games in back of the NL Central-winning St. Louis Cardinals.
And the division-rival Boston Red Sox also dealt Jon Lester to the Oakland Athletics at the deadline this season. But the Sox were five games further out than the Rays on July 31 and didn’t have Lester under control for 2015.
In short, none of those teams were quite so close to contention as the Rays, who as of Monday afternoon still have a 12.2 percent chance of making the postseason, according to Baseball Prospectus.
According to Rays’ players and front-office personnel, they remain determined to reach the playoffs in 2014. Here’s what president Matt Silverman told Topkin in the aftermath of the Price trade:
It's not waving a white flag at all. It certainly makes our journey more difficult, but we've faced bigger obstacles in the past. ... If our team plays up to the level it can, especially with all the head-to-head games we have within our division, we have a chance to make up the deficit and get into the playoffs.
What Silverman can’t say is whether, if Franklin, Smyly and Adames go on to have terrific careers, sacrificing a playoff appearance in 2014—a year in which Tampa Bay does not stack up well against the juggernauts in Oakland or Detroit—will be well worth it to the cash-strapped Rays.
Plus, Tampa Bay’s dreams are not dead. Perhaps Smyly will provide something close to 75 percent of Price's value for the rest of 2014, and perhaps Franklin will make an immediate impact in Tampa’s mediocre offense.
But if the Rays face a must-win series down the stretch, they may come to regret having, say, Odorizzi toe the mound in a game that otherwise could’ve been started by Price.
Either way, it will be fascinating to see whether the Rays will rally around the departure of their staff leader and continue to win games or if this move sees a return to their losing ways in the season’s first half.
It would be an improbable story, to be sure. But if they play well enough, perhaps they’ll see Price again in October.