WITH THE NONWAIVER trade deadline coming up on July 31, all eyes turn to central Florida, where the Rays are expected to make ace lefty David Price available. Price, 28, is a four-time All-Star who won the AL Cy Young Award in 2012 and has gotten better since. He leads the AL with 1472/3 innings pitched and 164 strikeouts, with nearly eight whiffs for every man he's walked. Since 1900, only three pitchers—Pedro Martinez twice, Curt Schilling and Ben Sheets once each—have struck out 200 men in a season in which they've also posted an 8--1 K/BB ratio. That's the company Price keeps.
But Price will be a free agent after the 2015 season, and there's very little chance that Tampa Bay can retain his services. The Rays, after six years of excellent baseball, are last in the majors in attendance this season. They trail the team with the fourth-best attendance in the AL East, the Blue Jays, by more than 10,000 tickets sold—per game. Price is making $14 million this season, and a long-term deal for him is likely to start at $25 million per over seven seasons—far too much for Tampa to swallow. With the Rays (44--53) 9½ games behind the Orioles, it seems like the perfect time to sell.
It isn't: The Rays should hold Price and make a run at the AL East title. Despite their record they may still be the most talented team in the division, but they have been held back by injuries and by players who've failed to meet expectations. Evan Longoria is slugging .386 with 11 homers, and Desmond Jennings has batted .246. James Loney is hitting .275 with five homers, well off his 2013 numbers (.299 and 13). Wil Myers was hitting .227/.313/.354 when he got hurt in May.
Three starters—Myers, shortstop Yunel Escobar and outfielder David DeJesus—are on the DL. Righthander Alex Cobb, last year's breakout star, missed six starts with an oblique strain, and righty Jeremy Hellickson is just now returning from right-elbow surgery. But Escobar should be back after the All-Star break, while Myers could return at the end of the month and DeJesus in August. By the start of next month the Rays will be as healthy as they've been all season.
On top of that, the AL East is soft. The Orioles and the Blue Jays are the only teams to have outscored their opponents this season, each by less than 26 runs. Only the NL Central has a weaker set of leaders. The Yankees are a .500 team that recently lost its best player, righthander Masahiro Tanaka, for at least six weeks to a right-elbow injury. Jays All-Star Edwin Encarnacion has a quad injury, and the team is averaging only three runs a game in July. The Orioles have huge lineup holes at catcher and second base, plus a starting rotation in which the low ERA among the regulars is Bud Norris's 3.96. The 2014 AL East may be won with 85 or 86 wins.
The Rays aren't a lock to get there, of course. To finish 85--77, they would have to go 41--24 the rest of the way, a .631 pace. Under Joe Maddon, the Rays have a history of closing strong; they went 41--25 in 2012, falling just short of a playoff berth. Last year they went 55--36 in their last 91 games, and this roster is nearly identical to that one.
Perhaps the best argument for keeping Price is this: The Rays' window is now, with a core of Price, Longoria and Jennings at their peak ages, supplemented by veterans Escobar, Loney and Ben Zobrist. Unlike the Cubs, who traded two starting pitchers to the A's, Tampa doesn't have a crop of great young players on the way.
The Rays can steal a postseason berth, but to do that, they need to ride David Price's left arm, not sell it to the highest bidder.