ST. PETERSBURG — The "absolute sadness" ace pitcher David Price said he felt after being traded by the Rays to the Detroit Tigers in a three-way deal Thursday was shared by many fans who believe the team's chances to reach the playoffs this season went with him. But while top Rays officials said they shared some of that remorse, they insisted that they had to infringe on — though not sacrifice — the short-term possibilities, trading Price to ensure continued success over the long term. "We felt strongly that this move was something that made ultimate sense for us," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "And comparing it to the other possibilities,
it was by far the most prudent thing that we could do for the best interest of the franchise."
The immediate return is a three-player package that seems to be lacking in star power but was apparently the best they could get:
Left-handed pitcher Drew Smyly, who will take Price's place in the rotation starting Tuesday night in Oakland; 18-year-old promising shortstop prospect Willy Adames from Detroit; and middle infielder Nick Franklin, a power-hitting Orlando-area product currently playing at Triple A, from Seattle.
"Obviously all three guys were really important to us in this transaction," Friedman said.
Money was also a factor. Not being able to afford Price once he becomes a free agent after the 2015 season — when he will command in the neighborhood of a seven-year, $175 million deal — was the reason they had to trade him at some point.
And Friedman said even keeping Price to start next season, when he is projected to make $18 million to $20 million, would have made it difficult to field a competitive team around him.
The other option was to keep Price, who is making a franchise-record $14 million this year, through this season and trade him over the winter. That would have allowed the team to try to continue its improbable run to the playoffs.
But by waiting, he likely would have brought less in return because the acquiring team would have gotten him for only one season rather than the rest of this one as well. The Rays might have had more teams interested over the winter, but that was a risk they apparently did not want to take.
"Forecasting ahead, looking out to the offseason, certainly that's a real variable that plays in," Friedman said.
The Rays didn't expect to be in this position after investing a franchise-high $80 million this season in what they felt was their best team. But a miserable start left them with the majors' worst record into June at 24-42.
They have gone on a remarkable run for the past seven weeks, winning 29 of 42 games, but their chances to make the playoffs still aren't good, as they woke up Thursday at 53-55, eight games behind the Orioles in the American League East race and 5½ behind Toronto (with four other teams in the way) for the second AL wild card spot.
"Standings certainly matter," Friedman said.
Yet after trading their best pitcher in Price, Friedman and other Rays officials said they expect the team to still be able to compete.
"It's not waving a white flag at all," team president Matt Silverman said. "It certainly makes our journey more difficult, but we've faced bigger obstacles in the past. … If our team plays up to the level it can, especially with all the head-to-head games we have within our division, we have a chance to make up the deficit and get into the playoffs."
Manager Joe Maddon said he expects the Rays, who resume play tonight at Tropicana Field against the Angels after being off Thursday, to continue battling.
"I hate losing David, absolutely. He's one of the best teammates I've ever been around. But you can't lament that, you can't worry about that, and you keep moving it forward," Maddon said.
"I'm anticipating not skipping a beat, and that's not denigrating David in any way. It's just that we've come so far and we have a bunch of professionals in our room and I want to believe we're going to be able to continue this."
That challenge certainly is greater without Price, 28. Drafted No. 1 overall by the Rays in 2007 out of Vanderbilt, he quickly developed into one of the top pitchers and bigger stars in the game, having compiled an 82-47 record and 3.18 ERA in six-plus seasons, making four All-Star teams and winning the 2012 American League Cy Young Award. He is 11-8, 3.11 this season, leading the majors in innings (1702/3) and strikeouts (189).
"Obviously David has been a fixture in our organization since 2008," Friedman said. "Beyond the success that he's enjoyed on the field, he's been as good of a teammate as I've ever seen, a tremendous competitor, a leader in the clubhouse. It goes without saying he leaves an indelible mark on our franchise."
Price has been pitching for weeks knowing a trade was possible. But he had hoped, even Thursday, when he went to play golf and swung by the Trop for a workout, that it wasn't going to happen.
"It's tough to put into words," he told the Tampa Bay Times. "There's absolute sadness. This is where I've been the last seven years. I love the guys, I love being here. It's different."
Silverman said it wasn't "a foregone conclusion" that they were going to trade Price on Thursday, nor was it a surprise that they decided to as parting ways with top players is part of the way they have to do things.
"Simply said, standing pat makes it much, much more difficult for us to maintain a compelling, competitive team going forward," Friedman said. "That's the reality of a low-revenue club. I think it's obvious to anyone who follows the game that the economic disparity is only widening, and it makes it a little bit more challenging in our quest to always balance the present and the future. But we can't waver from who we are and how we need to do things to have success."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.