The advent of the MLB Wild Card game brought more to the game of baseball than a 163rd game every season. With one more team “making the playoffs” each year, or at least having a real chance to make the playoffs proper, teams see the light at the end of the tunnel and don’t feel the pressure to sell at the deadline like years gone by.
When the July 31st trade deadline rolled around, teams more than a couple games out of contention became sellers. There was a much clearer buyer/seller line for a general manager to use. Now, sitting 4.5 games out of the second wild card position, the Tampa Bay Rays have hope, despite a terrible start to the season. They have a decision to make.
How They Got Here
After finishing 92-711 in 2013, the Rays reloaded their team, mostly by bringing back the same players, and were hoping for improvements from young players to keep them in contention. Wil Myers was heading into year two and the prediction community had Tampa Bay as the popular February and March World Series pick.2
Cue the first game of the season where a 9-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays solidified their spot among pundit favorites, add sarcasm where needed.
The last week of May, the Rays were sputtering with a record of 22-28 but were on the precipice of an, as-of-now, season-high 10-game losing streak. This trend coincided well, from a storytelling perspective, with Myers hitting the DL after fracturing his wrist. The late May/early June losing streak would hide a resurgence to come.
July comes to an end after Thursday’s trade deadline, and with it, the last chance for teams to make significant improvements from outside the organization for the stretch run.3 This is where the decision for Andrew Friedman, Rays General Manager, became difficult. Sunday, July 27th’s loss to the Boston Red Sox was the first time Tampa Bay has registered in the loss column since July 12; a nine-game winning streak. Though still under .500 with a record of 51-54, the Rays are just 4.5 games out of the second wild card slot. A climbable hill for Joe Maddon’s squad.
Where They Go From Here
Should the Rays be sellers? Is David Price on the move? Should he be? All are unenviable questions for Friedman and Co. to answer. For what it’s worth, it doesn’t look like the Rays know what to make of this entire situation yet either.
— Chris Cotillo (@ChrisCotillo) July 23, 2014
Andrew Friedman would not rule out “adding” at the trade deadline.and wouldn’t rule out trading Price at the deadline XM 89 Sirius 209 #ESPN
— JIM BOWDEN (@JimBowdenESPNxm) July 23, 2014
Saving the decision for Price after looking at all the variables seems appropriate as the decision to trade their ace could determine how the rest of their season goes no matter the rest of the roster.
Though he struggled in almost 200 at bats early in the year, sophomore slugger Myers is slated to return to the Tampa Bay lineup in mid-August,4 bringing back the player that hit .293/.354/.478 in his first campaign, winning the AL Rookie of the Year award. Attach the Myers bump to a possible return by David DeJesus in August5 and those are two trade-like bumps for the Rays to consider.
The loss of Matt Moore was terrible for the Rays, but with three starters above the 100 line in ERA+ and a fourth in Jeremy Hellickson with a higher likely floor than the current exploits of Erik Bedard, Tampa Bay still has hope in the rotation.6 That leaves a young, high upside staff featuring Chris Archer, Alex Cobb and Jake Odorizzi heading into the stretch run. A great rotation when lead by Price, but one that is not likely a playoff rotation without him.
Utility man extraordinaire Ben Zobrist has been mentioned as a likely trade chip for obvious reasons. At 33 years old, Zobrist isn’t a great piece for a team looking to reload for the future by trading their ace. But for the stretch run? His versatility is invaluable for the Rays. How Price goes, so goes Zobrist.
That leaves the ace decision. Without picking at the top of the draft, it is unlikely that the Rays will capture another pitcher at the level of Price, even in the trade that will eventually send him away.
Missing out on the postseason by just a few games or going all in just to get bounced in the Wild Card game would be especially hurtful to Tampa Bay. However, we’ve seen teams make the decision just a little too early by trading one of their stars and regretting the loss of that window.7 In my opinion, the value of Price is unlikely to plummet (barring injury which is always a risk) but the value of another chance at a playoff run should outweigh trading Price at the deadline.
This all goes without taking into account that more teams will be in on Price over the offseason than there are right now. Teams out of contention that have no interest in trading for a star pitcher going into a non-existent stretch run could offer great players. The Cubs have all the pieces necessary to make a deal with the Rays, but won’t consider Price until the offseason.
Finally, the current makeup of the Rays farm system is not one that inspires great hope going forward. Trading Price will reload the fairly weak system, but it also means risking entering a rebuild for several years before their young pitchers, and any young prospects in return for Price, put it all together at the major league level. One last run should be in the cards for Friedman and Maddon.
There is but one wild card spot that is truly up for grabs in the American League. The Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels are fighting for the top spot in the AL West, but the second team is undoubtedly the first wild card recipient; likely finishing in second place in the entire AL.
At 7.5 games back for the division lead, it is less likely that Tampa Bay will be able to corral the Baltimore Orioles or Blue Jays, depending who takes the division. But, as you know, the Rays are just 4.5 games back of the wild card. A very real possibility for the Rays to make a run at. Especially with the re-additions of Myers and DeJesus.
It will be no easy task to wrest the Wild Card from the hands of the rest of the AL East, but the Rays might not have a chance at the postseason with an ace the quality of Price for years to come. The front office has engendered trust in their process, but with a weak farm system and a chance at the postseason, Friedman should be looking at how he can solidify this team to make the best run at the Wild Card as is possible.
It isn’t probable, it shouldn’t even be considered very plausible.8 There’s just a slight ray of hope.
The Ray played the Texas Rangers in Game 163 of the season to settle a tie before playing in the Wild Card game. ↩
Trades can be made after July 31st, but they are subject to players clearing the waiver process or working out a trade with the team the claims the player. ↩
I’m looking at you Oklahoma City Thunder. ↩