ST. PETERSBURG — The symbolism was ominous, even if the timing was innocent. By the time the Rays opened their clubhouse to the media Wednesday, 13 hours after their season ended in a loss to Boston, David Price had already emptied out his locker and left the building.
Among many unknowns for the 2014 season, the biggest question, and the one that will hover over the Rays all winter in terms of conversation and speculation, is whether they will keep their ace left-hander or trade him.
Price said Wednesday night that he expects to be dealt.
"If you go with what's been done in the past, I guess you're going to have to think you're going to get traded," Price, 28, said. "That's kind of the way it's happened with this organization when pitchers kind of get to this period in their career. We've seen it happen a couple of times already. I don't know what's going to happen, but I know what's happened in the past."
In theory, the Rays are positioned to go either way:
• Deal Price now while he's two years from free agency and maximize a return that should exceed what they got when trading pitchers Matt Garza and James Shields at similar junctures.
• Or bring Price back, more likely on another one-year arbitration-framed deal — figuring on a raise from $10.1125 million to $13 million or so — than on any kind of longer-term arrangement. That would preserve the potential, if the Rays are not in contention, to trade him in July, and if they are after next season, albeit for a lesser return.
Executive vice president Andrew Friedman, of course, wasn't sharing strategy, saying "it's not helpful to comment on what-ifs."
But everyone else talking at the Trop on Wednesday made it clear what they wanted to happen with Price.
"I've given it a lot of thought, and so has he, and it's a sad thought, it really is," starter Alex Cobb said. "Because this group has gotten so close, and David has really morphed into our go-to leader, our go-to guy we look to for direction.
"It's not a thing that I want going on all offseason. I really hope they can figure something out and at least squeeze another year out of him, and hopefully even longer. I know it's been a thought in all of our minds this year that it could be our last year together. And it's been tough at times to think about that."
Added second baseman Ben Zobrist: "Obviously nobody in this clubhouse wants to believe that he won't be here next year."
Price admitted thinking that he could be making his last Rays appearance during the Sept. 30 tiebreaker game in Texas, again during Saturday's playoff game in Boston, and as he warmed up Tuesday night for a potential relief appearance in Game 4 of the American League Division Series.
"It's definitely something that weighs heavily on my mind," he said.
But the 2012 Cy Young Award winner maintained Wednesday night, speaking on a conference call with Tampa Bay area writers since he had left the Trop early, that he understands it's how the game works.
"It's not disappointing or anything like that," Price said. "This is definitely a place I love to be. My teammates and everybody in the organization knows that. But it's just part of baseball. It's something I've seen it go on, so it's kind of something I've somewhat prepared myself for."
Price, who as a free agent could command a $200 million contract, said he didn't know if a long-term deal with the Rays was possible, or if he would give them any kind of "hometown" discount. "We'd just have to see what that is," he said.
If the Rays do pursue a trade, the Cubs, Dodgers, Indians, Nationals and Rangers are among those teams expected to be interested.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]mpabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.