Since reaching the World Series in 2008, the Rays have started playing a game known as Billy Beane Postseason Roulette. It's fun, all it requires is some tight budgets, shrewd front office maneuvering, a strong regular season, and a loaded gun held to the temple in October.
Over the last five seasons, these are the Rays' results:
2009: 84-78, 3rd place, did not reach postseason
2010: 96-66, 1st place, Lost in the ALDS
2011: 91-71, 2nd place, Lost in the ALDS
2012: 90-72, 3rd place, did not reach postseason
2013: 92-71, 2nd place, Lost in ALDS
Defying the baseball gods, the Rays have also managed this success on a payroll of roughly $12.43 and a coupon for $2 off their next FroYo order. (Actual amount, $303.7 million, or, less than the Yankees have shelled out for free agents this offseason.)
But that's old hat. We've all heard the talk about the poor Rays and their hapless situation. Is this a baseball article or a selection from Charles Dickens' classic, Bleak House 2: The Trop?
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Stuart Sternberg, the Rays' owner, recently said that he rejects the idea of going ‘all-in," of bankrupting the team in the future for the chance at one perfect season. It makes sense, the playoffs largely an exciting crapshoot rather than a tournament that truly rewards the best team.
But this offseason, the fixed income Rays are pushing in as hard as they can. They've re-signed James Loney to a three year contract, replaced Fernando Rodney with the Parental Advisory-needing Grant Balfour, and, perhaps most telling of all, still have David Price on the roster.
But Price is set to earn $14 million this year, the most ever for a Ray, and with one more year of arbitration eligibility left, will only become more expensive next season. With two more years of control and at the tender age of 28, his value as a trade chip will never be higher. (For comparison's sake, Matt Garza, older, more fragile, and less successful pitcher, will be receiving slightly less than Price for the next four years with the Brewers.) So should they move the 2012 Cy Young winner?
The Rays farm system, long lauded for offering quality replacement after replacement, is beginning to fizzle. It simply happens when a team no longer routinely selects at the top of the draft the way they did before 2007 when the team topped out with a lone 70-win season. Still, the Rays had seven supplemental selections in the 2011 and all have disappointed. Meanwhile the players at the top of their prospect lists this season are players like Jake Odorizzi, Alex Colome, and Hak Ju-Lee--all viewed as strong role players, but not future stars.
A trade of Price, if a team is interested in paying that steep price (there are no current rumors swirling his way), would be an excellent way to kickstart the farm system and keep the Rays' wheels turning into the next decade.
But that begs the question, what is a major league baseball team supposed to do? Is the goal a World Series victory, giving the city and its fans a pennant to hang and a parade to get drunk at, even if it happens once every few decades?
Or is the goal to remain competitive every year, offering the fans an exciting product, lining owners pockets along the way?
While the obvious pursuit would be both, that's not an option for most teams other than the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Yankees. Winning and losing is a cycle in sports, the winning years turning to rebuilding campaigns turning back to winning seasons. The Rays, through luck, opportunity, and the possession of Albert Einstein's brain, have rejected this theory by churning out quality players, trading them for other quality players, and then trading them for other quality players.
The Rays turned Delmon Young, a former #1 prospect, into Matt Garza. Garza, a steady force in the rotation for three years, begat Chris Archer and Hak-Ju Lee. Last year, the Rays turned James Shields into Wil Myers, Mike Montgomery, and Jake Odorizzi.
But they can't always get so lucky, the results when trading established talent don't always turn out so well.
In the winter of 2009, the Toronto Blue Jays traded Roy Halladay to the Phillies, receiving Travis D'arnaud (.202/.286/.263 with the Mets in ‘13), Kyle Drabek (5.37 ERA in 169.1 IP), and Michael Taylor (.135/.210/.189 for the Athletics).
That same winter, the Phillies traded Cliff Lee to the Mariners, getting two relievers in Phillippe Aumont and J.C. Ramirez along with Tyson Gillies, a 24-year-old coming off a weak year in AAA.
In 2011, the Rockies traded Ubaldo Jimenez, receiving Drew Pomeranz (5.20 ERA in 136.2 IP), and Alex White (6.30 ERA in 134.1 IP) in return.
There are hundreds of examples of trades for young players going sour. The jump between AA and AAA to the majors is too big, the scouting information too incomplete, the human chaos too great. Trading away top tier talent for minor league dreams is something the Rays have been great at, but at some point they will double down and lose.
Just three years ago, they were thought to be an unstoppable drafting machine. And now look at them, the system is drying and this is a team built to win now, no matter the Red Sox beard-inspired title or the Yankees' baseball Voltron that is currently being assembled.
Their rotation is arguable the deepest in the East, Price being backed up by Alex Cobb (11-3, 2.76), Matt Moore (17-4, 3.29), Jeremy Hellickson (10-12, 5.17), and Chris Archer (9-7, 3.22) with Odorizzi, Colome and Enny Romero available if needed.
Evan Longoria may be the best in the league and their second baseman/super-utility-guru, Ben Zobrist, is wretchedly underrated, his 17.5 fWAR over the last three years is the sixth best in the league, behind Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Robinson Cano, and Joey Votto. Naturally, because he's a Ray, he'll be earning just $7 million in 2014.
In the outfield, Desmond Jennings, though he may never be the All-Star that he was expected to become, is coming off a solid year, while Wil Myers will be making his full season debut, one year after hitting 13 home runs with an .831 OPS as a rookie.
Add in the Rays ability to find value in unexpected places like the Jose Lobaton/Jose Molina catching duo, and attracting undervalued pieces like James Loney, and this is a team that can win the East in 2014. Clay Davenport has already called it.
So the Rays have a choice to make. They can choose to hold onto David Price and go for it all, sacrificing some of his surplus value to make it happen, perhaps risking a return to bottom of the AL East in the future. Or they could trade David Price and risk a bad return. Or they could keep David Price and risk an arm injury. Or they could trade David Price and risk Major League Baseball all of a sudden ending because "all the danged baseball already got played." There's risk everywhere.
A trade of Price announces that the window for the Rays to win comes in four-year cycles, not six, that they must develop, graduate, and move on from talent in the same amount of time that a child will enter and graduate high school. (For those keeping track, we're 8 years into Dayton Moore's run atop the Royals.) That's not the Rays' fault, that's an economics problem, a finance problem, and a Major League Baseball problem that will one day need to be fixed.
But what's best for baseball, as a sport, and what's best for Rays fans, is to keep Price, to try one more time and give the 18,000+ fans a night that show up one hell of a show. Arguably, it's best for the franchise, too. But you'd need an economist and a psychic to give you that answer.
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