The hounds have been released. With the Devil back in Tampa Bay, trade talks involving soon-ish-to-be free agent all star starter (Whew) and Cy Young winner David Price, will only escalate.
The Rays appear motivated, more so because 3B Evan Longoria continues to struggle and RF Wil Myers is out for a protracted period, with early August an optimistic possibility. There’s no point in trying. Tampa Bay has been down this road before, and we’re just talking about the Rays (and not the Devil Rays) edition.
Remember Scott Kazmir when he appeared like a lefty ace, a Cliff-ish Lee clone known concurrently as Tampa Bay’s first big trade victory* as well as its first ace-like hurler.
*Mets fans curse the day Mets GM Jim Duquette traded the lefty prospect for non-prospect but pro Victor Zambrano. Zambrano wasn’t even that good when Tampa Bay pilfered a pitcher drafted 15th overall. Zambrano’s only advantage over a younger, better and cheaper player was that he was a switch-hitter.
The few Rays fans at the time appreciated Kazmir, who debuted at 20 and was loosely a homegrown product. From 21- to 24-years-old, Kazmir went 45-34, with a 3.51 ERA / 3.72 FIP / 2.39 K-to-BB ratio, striking close to 10 batters per nine innings, and by adjusted ERA was 27 percent better than the average starting pitcher. At 23, Kazmir had a career high 5.8 bWAR, about a six-win value, at half a million dollars.
Kazmir was 25 with a 4.89 ERA in about 111 innings when the Rays traded him mid-season to the L.A. Angels of Anaheim. The Rays didn’t get much back — a relief pitcher who’s going down in history as the first relief plumber, Super Alex Torres, and Sean Rodriguez, the Natty Ice to Ben Zobrist’s Knucklesandwich IPA. Still, it was a viable relief pitcher who gave the Rays a 1.72 ERA in 39 games as a 25-year-old last season. Rodriguez was still beer, and deployed correctly by party meister Joe Maddon, got the job done because cheap booze exists for a reason.
Kazmir continued to be expensive. He was good for half a season with the Angels, and was on his way to the Sugar Land Skeeters after two seasons of subpar pitching.
And that’s how Andrew Friedman and his front office has been running things. Absent top 10 picks by virtue of winning, they’ve flipped a very valuable asset — one they have a lot of — to run a good, postseason-ready team. By trading ace-looking but still above average pitchers like James Shields, Matt Garza,
Price has lost velocity, but still throws hard, especially for a lefty who hits his spots. His 3.10 FIP is lower than his career 3.36 FIP, plus a ridonkulous 7 plus stirke outs-to-walk ratio. His 10 strikeouts per nine, while walking just 1.3 per nine, shows a dominant pitcher, the truce ace Jeff Samardzija just ain’t.
But as many teams — specifically the Philadelphia Phillies — have failed to clinch postseason berths by front-loading on starting pitching. For years Tampa Bay has managed to end seasons with plus run differentials because it has built a deep arsenal of pitchers, starters and relievers alike, like they were sushi from a conveyor belt.
Price is the kind of arm that can deliver a top 10 prospect like SS Addison Russell, whom the Chicago Cubs acquired with fearless abandon, for two excellent and established starting pitchers.
Price may look prohibitive, but it’s also not assured that Tampa Bay would trade him. They’ve let contracts lapse before. They’ve done it Carl Crawford. So it goes. Price may be the type of fixture that allows the Rays to sell tickets. Trade him, and they’ve got to start winning to make up for lost sales, dim as those numbers already are. From the perspective of good media practices, the Rays are just as likely fine with getting draft compensation. Sure, this season didn’t work. But the difference has been small but crucial — health. Coupled with Evan Longoria’s prolonged slump, and the aging of Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar’s bats, Tampa Bay couldn’t sustain the loss of Wil Myers, himself struggling before a fielding blunder got him taken out for at least two months.
Things could get back to normal. After all, the team has more pieces to trade, before even dipping into the Price goldmine.
It’s tempting. Every conversation with interested teams will begin thusly:
- Los Angeles Dodgers: OF Joc Pederson or SP Zach Lee …
- Seattle Mariners: SS Nick Franklin AND SPs James Paxton AND Danny Hultzen, or straight up plus-minus prospects for SP Taijuan Walker. And throw in James Jones, so the Rays can add David DeJesus to the Seattle-bound mail.
-Cleveland Indians: SS Francisco Lindor AND SP Danny Salazar …
- New York Yankees: Um, so … C Gary Sanchez and RP Dellin Betances? Moving on, don’t count on this dream from happening.
Notice that not all prospects are created equal. As the A’s have displayed, the value of players has gone upside down. One great prospect fetched two proven pitchers. That’s how that trade should have been digested.
Under that scenario, Zobrist, DeJesus, Escobar and Bedard would have little value. Other teams might even consider it a favor to take on their contracts, giving up nothing of value but money in the end.
Price would break that threshold. He’s good enough to be the kind of player who’s worth more than a hot shot prospect. It’s a lost summer. The Rays can bite on the lure. Or call it even and wait for next year, a final run with Price.
They’ll likely not get the same value they could for Price anyway, and any deal involving Lindor and perhaps C Carlos Santana must be weighed against the value of offense to elite pitching. And like Crawford but unlike Shields, Kazmir, Garza, Jackson and all the bevy of starters they’ve gotten the max through trades, Price is the face of the Rays’ franchise.
Tampa Bay might just hold on to that.
Don’t be surprised if the Rays aren’t moved by the trade deadline.