After the Rays were ousted from the playoffs by the Red Sox, their ace, David Price, conceded that he may have pitched his last game for Tampa Bay. The 28-year-old lefty won't be a free agent until after the 2015 season, but with his salary rising and two years of arbitration eligibility remaining, this winter may be the best opportunity for the Rays to maximize their return via trade, particularly after his late-season run restored his value following some early struggles.
In 2013, Price couldn't match his Cy Young-winning performance from the year before, but after a rocky opening six weeks followed by a six-week stay on the disabled list due to a triceps strain, he pitched much closer to his high standard upon returning. Over his final 18 regular seasons starts, he posted a 2.53 ERA and a 7.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio while completing four games, including the Game 163 play-in that put Tampa Bay back in the playoffs. He finished the regular season with a 3.33 ERA, 7.3 strikeouts per nine and a career-best 1.3 walks per nine in 186 2/3 innings.
In order to keep its payroll low and to take advantage of its considerable minor league pitching depth, the Rays have made a practice of trading their big-name starters for prospects. In August 2009, they dealt Scott Kazmir to the Angels for a trio of players, including current reliever Alex Torres and utilityman Sean Rodriguez. In January 2011, they sent Matt Garza to the Cubs in an eight-player deal that brought back current starter Chris Archer, among others. In December 2012 they traded James Shields to the Royals in a six-player blockbuster that landed them AL Rookie of the Year candidate Wil Myers as well three other prospects.
Kazmir, Garza and Shields had all pitched well in Tampa Bay, but none won a Cy Young award, as Price has done, and all had at least two years of club control remaining themselves. Kazmir was signed through 2011, with an option for 2012. Garza was a Super Two like Price, with two years of arbitration eligibility remaining. Shields had the first of two club-friendly options picked up around six weeks before he was dealt.
Thus it's fair to expect that Price will fetch a bigger package even as his salary rises above this year's $10.1 million. While he's unlikely to be dealt before the Winter Meetings in December, what follows is an early look at the teams that could target him; they are ranked roughly in order of my estimate of the likelihood they'll land him. Offhand, I'm ruling out the other AL East teams. While they may be able to afford his big extension, the chances of pulling off an intra-division deal between rivals appear to be small.
After reaching the World Series in both 2010 and 2011, the Rangers merely won an AL wild-card spot in 2012 and then missed the postseason entirely this year after losing the play-in to Price and company. Injuries to their rotation were one reason they came up short; Yu Darvish and Derek Holland were the only two Texas starters who took more than 20 turns this past season, while 2011-12 mainstay Matt Harrison was limited to just two stars due to a pair of back surgeries, and Alexi Ogando managed just nine starts after May 15, only one them a quality outing. Holland (5.73 ERA in six starts) and deadline acquisition Garza (5.02 ERA) were lousy down the stretch, which didn't help the Rangers' cause.
Thus the need for Price is there, and so is the young talent it would take to obtain him. The Rangers still haven't figured out what to do with Jurickson Profar amid their infield logjam; the consensus top prospect in baseball coming into the year got just 324 plate appearances in a utility role. He's still blocked at shortstop, second base and third base by the long-term deals of Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre, respectively, with Kinsler showing little desire to move to first base or leftfield to open up a spot.
A deal for Price could take more than just Profar, and while Texas has cleared out some of its minor league depth via trades (including the Garza deal), chances are it has enough prospects to round out a strong package as well as enough payroll space to sign Price to an extension. If the team is dead set against dealing Profar, offense-minded second baseman Rougned Odor, who reached Double-A as a 19-year-old in 2013, could be the key piece.
In Archie Bradley and Tyler Skaggs, the Diamondbacks have two well-regarded pitching prospects on the way to join a young, crowded rotation, but they lack an ace. Bradley is probably untouchable, but Tampa Bay could ask for a package built around Skaggs or a cost-controlled starter such as Patrick Corbin or Wade Miley, supplemented by a shortstop option like starter Didi Gregorious or prospect Chris Owings.
Another possibility would be power-hitting third baseman Matt Davidson, the MVP of the 2013 Futures Game. With Evan Longoria entrenched at the hot corner for the Rays, Davidson would have to move to first base or an outfield corner, but Tampa Bay has the roster flexibility to accommodate that.
Coming off their first winning season and playoff appearance since 1992, the Pirates are now legitimate contenders, but they'll need to find ways to improve in order to get past the Cardinals and stave off the Reds in the NL Central. Replacing free agent A.J. Burnett with Price would be a big upgrade, and with Andrew McCutchen the only player signed long-term, Pittsburgh should be able to offer the lefty a substantial contract extension — if it can convince him to stay.
Even if righty Jameson Taillon is untouchable, the Bucs could structure a deal around outfielder Gregory Polanco, shortstop Alen Hanson or righty Luis Heredia in order to secure Price. Doing so would be a big change from their recent trend of nurturing their homegrown talent, but then again, the same could be said for the Royals prior to the Shields deal, and they weren't coming off a playoff appearance. A trade for Price wouldn't be painless, but nobody's giving away ace southpaws for free.
After winning 98 games in 2012, the Nationals were picked to win the World Series by many, yet they didn't climb above .500 for good until late August and finished 10 games back in the NL East, eight behind in the wild card race. They've already got an enviable "Big Three" in Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, all of whom are under club control through at least 2015, but it may take even more to get over the top.
Washington doesn't have any upper-level prospect who could headline a deal -- Anthony Rendon, who took over the starting second base job in midseason, was their only player to crack the Baseball America or Baseball Prospectus Midseason Top 50 Prospects list -- but the club does have well-regarded pitching prospects further down, such as Lucas Giolito and A.J. Cole. The Nats also have the player Rendon displaced at second in Danny Espinosa, whose 2013 season was a disaster due to injuries but who will be a popular target this winter given his ability to play shortstop and his three years of remaining club control.
St. Louis Cardinals
As they showed during their run to the World Series, the Cardinals are bursting at the seams with young pitching -- Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, the missing-in-action Shelby Miller, and more even lower down in the system -- but their rotation lacks a lefty. Price could pair nicely at the front of their starting five alongside Adam Wainwright and make the defending NL champions that much stronger. St. Louis would have to surrender some of that arms stockpile in a deal, and with a pair of offense-minded first basemen on hand in Allen Craig and Matt Adams, it could include a hitter of significance as well.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers already have an impressive big three of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, but given their seemingly limitless spending, insiders such as ESPN's Buster Olney and Jim Bowden believe that Los Angeles could aggressively pursue Price. That said, the Dodgers have yet to sign Kershaw to what's anticipated to be a $200 million extension — a reckoning that's likely to come this winter — and they've already proclaimed that they don't have enough payroll flexibility to go after Robinson Cano, so it's tougher to envision yet another heavy investment in a starting pitcher.
They're unlikely to part with 2012 first-round pick Corey Seager, a 19-year-old shortstop who finished the year in High-A, but centerfielder Joc Pederson, who spent the year in Double-A, could go, as he's buried behind the quartet of L.A. outfielders (Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig) signed to big-money deals through at least 2017.
Since taking over in late 2011, club president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have done a good job of building up the organization's farm system and shedding the big contracts from the Jim Hendry era. At the moment, Chicago has just $49.3 million committed to next year, so it has plenty of payroll space to take on Price and sign him to a long-term deal. As with the Cubs' failed pursuit of Joe Girardi as manager, the timing to acquire the lefty may not be ideal, in that they don't appear close to contention just yet. It may not make sense to pay Price to stick around while the team waits for top prospects such as Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora, all of whom at least are at least season and a half away from the majors, to ripen.
Seattle MarinersOlney mentioned the Mariners as potential players for Price, but from here it's difficult to see, even given how tantalizing a possibility it may be to pair him with Felix Hernandez. Despite a strong season from the King in the first year of his $175 million extension and a breakout performance by Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle won just 71 games en route to its fourth straight losing season, and it continued to struggle to piece together a functioning offense. Furthermore, the Mariners' top prospect, Taijuan Walker, is a pitcher so they're better off focusing on adding hitters.