Start with this assumption: The Rays are going to trade David Price.
So really, it's just a matter of when.
The focus is on the now, as baseball's decisionmakers gather at Disney starting tonight for the annual winter meetings. The Rays certainly could make a deal soon — this week, or later this month, or in January — as a dozen-plus teams already have been speculated to be interested. Seattle is the hot rumor now, with more frenzied reports to follow.
Or they could wait. Maybe until July, when a desperate team might pay more. Or after this season. Or even in July 2015.
But unless the Rays settle for just a compensatory draft pick for letting him leave as a free agent after 2015 — as they did with Carl Crawford — Price will be dealt.
Even he thinks so.
Without saying much publicly, the Rays have nonetheless spread their mantra: They don't have to trade their ace left-hander now, and his $13 million salary isn't prohibitive. They're not asking around, but they are ready to start listening. Also, it's going to take a lot to seal a deal: elite, young and cost-controlled talent, like the James Shields/Wil Myers trade last offseason.
What Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman will say is this:
"The most overarching comment that I always make when asked about specific players is … that our goal is to be as good as we can be in 2014 and be as well-positioned as possible to sustain that success into the future. Certain players make that much more difficult than others, and so it's just something that we weigh and balance in everything we do every day of the year."
So, how do they decide? In talking to Rays officials, competing team executives, industry insiders and others, it's clear myriad factors are in play. See PRICE, 4C
When is the right time?
The prevailing thought is that the Rays will trade Price now because his value will never be higher, that they can maximize their return as the acquiring team would have Price for two full seasons before he becomes a free agent. (That's similar to when they traded Shields, who was signed for 2013 with a 2014 option.)
Plus, there are more teams in the conversation now, with the ability to adjust their budgets, personnel and plans accordingly over the offseason if they land Price. It's certainly easier for teams to dream big in the winter.
By waiting until the July trade deadline, the Rays likely would have a much smaller field to match up with. It would take a contending team that A) needed an ace, B) had — and was willing to part with — the prerequisite premium young talent, and C) could afford to add Price.
But teams in that position tend to be desperate and more willing to pay, or overpay. And it only takes one, so the return could be just as good — or better — in July.
Waiting also allows the Rays to gauge their own season — whether they have a strong chance to get back to the playoffs and should keep Price, or if it's unlikely and they might as well trade him. Doing so, though, could also leave them paralyzed if they are in an uncertain spot in midsummer — say six games back.
Keeping Price could help the Rays in 2014 but hurt them going forward as they would get considerably less dealing him then, with only one year until free agency. Some estimate the Rays would get 20-50 percent less in that scenario.
There's also the risk that Price has a bad 2014 season or, worse, sustains an injury or a recurrence of his 2013 triceps issue, severely slicing his trade value.
What's the price for Price?
Ultimately, this is the biggest issue. By not having to make a deal, the Rays not only can wait for "best" offers but can walk away if they don't deem any good enough.
What are they looking for? Talent.
The Rays don't go into these situations seeking to fill needs but to get the best return.
Sure, it might be better to get a big league-ready first baseman or a young catcher than a kid who will be stuck behind third baseman Evan Longoria, but they'll sort that out later. And when in doubt, they'll take pitching. Always pitching.
Also, quality is more important then quantity. The Rays got five players back for Matt Garza plus two bit parts, and the Shields-Myers deal included seven total, but the focus is what's on the top shelf.
Think of it this way: Since Price, 28, is more valuable than Shields, it follows that the Rays should be able to get more than the equivalent of Myers, who was the reigning minor-league player of the year.
So maybe that is one elite-level young player — say pitcher Taijuan Walker from Seattle or infielder Jurickson Profar from Texas — plus a major league-ready player or pitcher, then a lower-level prospect or two. Or maybe it's a pair of really good young players.
Who is interested?
By the end of the week, more teams than not will have been linked to Price in some form.
Realistically, there are only a half-dozen or so who would seem to meet the two major criteria: young talent to get the Rays to do the deal, and the financial resources to pay Price — not just the $30 million to $35 million he'll make over the next two seasons but the $175 million to $200 million to sign him to a long-term deal to make the trade worthwhile.
Fresh off their signing of Robinson Cano, the Mariners are widely reported to be extremely interested and have the players and the money. The Dodgers and Rangers have long been considered top contenders. The Diamondbacks are open about wanting to add an ace, and the Angels are in desperate need. The Braves (who likely would be Price's top choice) and Cardinals could both be fits.
Less likely, but possible, are the Cubs, Padres, even the Pirates.
And there could be more teams willing to get resourceful. Cy Young Award winners still in their prime don't become available too often, and at a time when there aren't many other appealing choices.
Consider the hefty cost of pitching on the free agent market, with mediocre starters getting big deals: $49 million over four years for Ricky Nolasco, $32M/4 for Jason Vargas, $24M/3 for Phil Hughes, $22/2 for former Ray Scott Kazmir.
Some better starters remain available, though none as good as Price, for even more inflated prices: Bronson Arroyo, former Ray Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, maybe Masahiro Tanaka. And trade options beyond Price look limited to the Cubs' Jeff Samardzija and Oakland's Brett Anderson.
All things even, the Rays would rather trade Price to a National League team. And though they won't rule out the other AL East teams, there would be a heavy "tax" to keep him in the division.
Breaking up is hard to do
Wouldn't it be hard for the Rays to trade Price, a homegrown, personable star who loves being here? It may, but it's just business.
Price knows that, acknowledging at the end of the season that he expected to be dealt. And there's no reason for him to think any differently now. (Probably more if he's reading any posts during all the time he spends on Twitter.)
"We really don't know any more than everybody else," agent Bo McKinnis said Friday. "David has made it clear many times how much he likes playing for the Rays. At this point we're reading the same reports and watching and waiting to see what happens."
Trading Price would be hard on the Rays, though they feel confident they could still contend. They would have a hole at the top of the rotation that presumably either Alex Cobb or Matt Moore would have to fill, unless a veteran were acquired to step in.
Parting ways now, during the offseason, when many people around the team are expecting the trade, would be easier. Just as they lost Garza, Crawford, B.J. Upton, Shields and others, the Rays will show up in spring training and manager Joe Maddon will get them focused on what they do have.
But if they started the season with Price and decided to trade him in July, it could be a much tougher break for the remaining players and staff to handle.
Also worth considering
• Would progress on the new stadium front influence the Rays to keep Price, under the theory that good vibes from a contending team would generate public support? Not a bit. To the team, they are separate issues. "Our financial constraints obviously influence our baseball decisions, but we don't let our stadium pursuits leak into those decisions," team president Matt Silverman said. "Imagine if we had — we would have been wrong for the past seven years."
• There might be a financial benefit to trading Price before the end of the '14 season, as the Rays deferred $4.1 million from his 2013 deal (technically a signing bonus) and could try to get the acquiring team to pay that.
• Price has no control over whom the Rays make a deal with, but he could have a say if that team got a window from the Rays to negotiate a long-term deal as a prerequisite and he didn't want to do so. For that reason, the Rays are unlikely to grant such a request.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.