PORT CHARLOTTE — Technically, the Rays optioned left-hander David Price to Triple-A Durham on Wednesday. But essentially, they made a trade.
The Rays figure they'd rather have Price be available to work important innings in August, September and (hopefully) October, and be improved from the additional development time, and they're willing to do without him for April, maybe May and possibly longer to have it that way.
Price, 23, knew the demotion was coming and considered it "part of the game," but that didn't make it any easier to take: "Right now it kind of stinks a little bit."
As electrifying as Price was in relief during the 2008 postseason, the Rays had two primary reasons to send him down, along with outfielder Justin Ruggiano, infielders Reid Brignac and Elliot Johnson and catcher John Jaso.
One was that although Price met their request to improve his changeup, he needs to better the command of his fastball and, thus, his overall pitch efficiency.
The other is they want to limit his innings this season to around 170 as part of their program to protect the health of young pitchers long-term. It is easier to control his workload in the minors, where he can be pulled from early-season games with less concern for taxing the bullpen than in the majors. Plus, they'd rather limit him early than later.
"We just think it's the prudent thing to do right now for him and for us, and it's part that and part development," manager Joe Maddon said. "If we did not believe that we had a chance to go back to the playoffs and the World Series, then easily you would start him in the beginning of the season and then just shut him off at a certain point. But we see it the other way around."
Plus, executive vice president Andrew Friedman said they don't feel they're sacrificing anything early in the season because of the quality of the pitcher, either Jason Hammel or Jeff Niemann, who will man the fifth spot.
"We feel like if we were doing something in April at the expense of August and September, it has more of a chance to hurt us than doing it vice versa," Friedman said. "There's not a perfect answer. … With the guys we have, we feel confident that we'll still be in good position."
Price said he felt the decision was predetermined but that he made a good case for the fifth spot in his limited outings (a 1.08 ERA, six hits, 10 strikeouts in 81/3 innings over three games) and improved his changeup enough to make it "a non-issue."
"I didn't have very good stuff, but my numbers are there," he said. "I haven't really been myself at all, but I competed and gave us a chance to win. That's all I can do."
Though Price signed a six-year contract after being the top pick in the 2007 draft, the length of his stay in the minors could affect, as with all players, his eligibility for arbitration.
Friedman said the move was made solely — "Of course" — for baseball reasons. Price said, "I'm not getting caught up in that," but acknowledged: "Yeah, it's a business. They've got to look out for their best interest. If I was the owner of the team I'd be doing the same thing."
Price's demotion wasn't the only one with a story line, as Ruggiano seemed the favorite to take recovering B.J. Upton's place on the opening day roster.
Now it seems more likely to be new acquisition Matt Joyce, who despite a late start due to injury is catching Maddon's eye, or veteran Adam Kennedy, who is making a strong bid for a utility job (including a long two-run homer Wednesday) and makes his first appearance of the spring in the outfield tonight.
But Friedman said Ruggiano is in the mix and was optioned so he could get regular at-bats with the Triple-A team. "If B.J. starts the year on the DL, we could still recall him," Friedman said.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.