ST. PETERSBURG — Measure of the Rays' nadir can be taken in many ways, including the stunning reality of opening a series in Houston tonight 51/2 games worse than an Astros team widely expected to be baseball's bottom-feeder.
Despite being unable to correct individual struggles and improve teamwide issues that have extended into a third month and produced a major-league-worst 25-42 record, Rays officials remain optimistic they somehow can stage what now would amount to a historic turnaround.
Their primary rationale is simple, though straightforward: The players they have are too good for the team to be this bad.
"We have a tremendous amount of confidence in this group," executive vice president Andrew Friedman reiterated Thursday. "What that means at the end of the year has obviously become more hazy.
"We are very focused day-to-day at this point. We have dug ourselves quite a hole, but there is no finger pointing and we are all aligned in doing what we collectively can do to win one game at a time. Hopefully we will look up one day and be in a much better position in the standings."
But what if they don't?
And especially soon.
"I guess we'll have trades," reliever Joel Peralta said. "I guess we'll lose a couple guys."
The nonwaiver trade deadline is less than seven weeks away, and it would seem obvious, if not automatic, that the Rays look to trade some of the players who didn't help them win this year for prospects or young big-leaguers who can be part of future success.
Ace David Price would top the list that could also include Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, David DeJesus, Grant Balfour and others.
While scouts and media observers are already buzzing with speculation — theorizing the Rays would look to pre-empt a market that could feature several top starters (including ex-Ray James Shields, now with Kansas City) by dealing Price sooner than later — Friedman said they are nowhere close to deciding on their course of action.
"It is way too early to speculate on specific trade deadline plans right now," Friedman said. "Just like every other year, we are taking this time after the draft to check in with teams to get a sense of what they are looking to do. We will use that information to try to find situations where our objectives overlap with other teams."
With another year until free agency and a performance better than his 4-6, 3.97 record reflects, Price would obviously be a top target. A deal could provide the Rays an opportunity to bolster a farm system devoid of advanced high-end prospects, though it may be a challenging to find a match with a team that will give the Rays the kind of talent they want back and can afford Price.
After enduring an offseason of trade rumors, Price made it clear he wants no part of any speculation now. "I'm not entertaining questions about myself being traded," he said. "I've got no comments for that."
It's impossible to predict how the Rays and Friedman will react, since they have never been in this situation before, with a team that was expected to contend underperforming so much so early.
"We're the worst team in baseball," Price said. "I don't know what their plans are."
Do they stand relatively pat, or trade only Price, assuming this year is an aberration, acknowledging that much of the core is signed or under control for several years, and banking on a return to contention in 2015?
Or blow it all up, trading as many players as they can, taking advantage of the large number of other anxious contenders, to significantly re-stock their system and reduce future payroll commitments after spending a team-record $80 million this season?
The current players are well aware of the possibilities and curious to see what happens. "Anybody's guess," Zobrist said.
While a number of players, starting with Evan Longoria, said they'd prefer to keep the current squad — "A great group of guys," Longoria said — intact, there is also an understanding their bosses may decide otherwise.
"I think it's a natural concern of a player to not want to see that happen because you want to be part of a team that has the best chance to win every night," Alex Cobb said.
"But you have to step aside and realize there's a business side and a growth side, and the management that we've trusted for how many successful seasons is going to do what they think is in the best interests of that. And you have to respect those decisions also."
In this case, time truly will tell.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]bay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.