It isn't every December, at the winter meetings holiday gift fair, that 29 general managers can grab a shopping basket and find a 28-year-old Cy Young Award winner sitting on the shelves.
But that's the deal (literally) this week, as the Tampa Bay Rays embark on a mission they've dreaded for months, maybe even years. The time has come -- for them to work seriously to trade their favorite ace, David Price, while his trade value is as high as it's going to get, with a gazillion-dollar trip to free agency now just two years away.
You know the Dodgers will be visiting their showroom. And the Braves, although dollar-challenged, have long been intrigued by Price.
If you're looking for a team that could whoosh in out of the clouds, we've heard buzzing about the Padres, who scouted Price heavily last year, and the Cubs, who hired Price's old college pitching coach (Derek Johnson) a little more than a year ago.
And if you had a creative, conspiratorial mind, you could easily concoct scenarios where the Angels (if they moved lots of money), Tigers (if they find themselves forced to trade Max Scherzer), Blue Jays (if they could pull some sort of sneaky three-way deal to keep Price in the AL East) or Phillies (who seem to collect Cy Youngs for a hobby) would have the motivation, if not the prospects and financial resources, to at least kick the tires.
So you would think, with all that interest, that the Rays could wind up trading Price any minute now. But clubs that have spoken with them get the clear sense that their crafty executive vice president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, is in no hurry to make what will be arguably the most important deal in franchise history.
"I get the feeling Andrew is playing this kind of like an agent who is biding his time," said an executive of one team that checked in. and waiting for the need of all these teams [to do something big] to get even greater as the offseason goes on."
Other clubs say Friedman is simply doing what he does as well as anyone else in his field -- creating leverage with a smart, careful negotiating stance that will force the bidders to come to him, not the other way around.
And we could sum up that stance in six words: "We don't have to trade him."
A better translation for that approach probably would be, "We don't have to trade him now." So what's the worst thing that can happen if the Rays don't trade him this week, this month or this winter? That's a long time from now."
And technically, the Rays also can afford to pay Price over the next two years if they choose to, although it would force them to make sacrifices in other areas. Teams and agents we've surveyed expect that if he goes year to year, he would earn between $30 million to $37 million in his final two seasons of arbitration eligibility, depending on how well he pitches next season. And they admit that if the Rays were to drop Price into the July trading-deadline market, they could actually end up raking in a bigger return than they'd get if they deal him right now. Not the way the Yankees have to win, or the Dodgers have to win, or the Red Sox have to win. He will work it until he gets the very best deal he can make."
But, on the other hand &
"He says he doesn't have to trade him, but realistically, he does," another rival executive said of Friedman. So whatever they get back for David Price has to do such a spectacular job of maintaining their ability to torment the Yankees and Red Sox over the next five years that it makes it worth their while to give up the chance to win a World Series by keeping him next year. And when you add in the unlikely scenario that a team trading for Price would have a chance to negotiate an extension first, it makes those elite prospects even harder for any team to include.
But the big exception to that rule was a trade made by (guess who?) Friedman, precisely one year ago, when he got the next AL rookie of the year (Wil Myers), and more, for starter James Shields.
So regardless of that history, regardless of modern baseball economics, how can this team wade into the Price waters and not come away with at least that much -- especially when you consider the mediocre state of the rest of the starting-pitching market?
Ask yourself this: Which starter would you rather have -- Price or Ubaldo Jimenez? Never forget that.
So as this week and this winter roll along, Friedman will do what he always does when it comes time to make a trade like this:
He will set the bar high. So he's got every reason to take his time."
Which makes winter meetings week an excellent time for all the teams in this chase to start their Christmas shopping. But will Price be a Mariner or a Ranger or a Dodger by week's end?
Based on the way other teams are talking? Unless, say, the Mariners get the same desperate look in their eyes they got when they signed Robinson Cano, we'd bet this will be the only opening episode in a drama that still could take weeks to unfold.