Andrew Friedman was always the smartest guy in the room. Over the years, that has been no less important to the Rays than, say, third base.
In the worst of times, Friedman was the equalizer. More than pitching, more than prospects. More than defense, more than managing.
For years, this has been a franchise that has thought its way out of the muck. It won when the dollars didn't make sense. It won when the economics left it helpless to stop the attrition that all small market teams face. It won at the rich kids' table.
It won by collecting arms. It won by run-prevention. It won by matchups. It won despite a lack of great power. It won when the raw speed left. It won despite the fact the best bats are always out of its price range. No, the Rays haven't been perfect, because no one really masters baseball, and the draft has been particularly confusing. But in most years, the Rays have been better than most other teams because they have been sharper than most other teams.
It is time for Friedman to be the smartest kid in the room once again.
Look, loyalty is terrific, and optimism is swell. And around town, it is easy to feel better about the Rays than it has been for most of the season. After all, the team has won 13 of its past 18 games, and it has won four out of its past five series. When a team has recaptured a bit of its respectability, it is easy to fool yourself into thinking that sanity has been restored.
Still, this team remains tied for last place in the AL East. The cellar is closer than the playoffs. And there is a reason that tonight's All-Star Game will be Ray-Free. No, this does not have the feel of a team that is likely to cure itself.
Friedman and his staff have to be aware of that. And they have to be aware that difficult decisions lie ahead between now and the July 31 trading deadline.
This will not be easy. When a team wins 594 games in a shade over 6½ years, attachments form. No one wants to trade David Price. Or Ben Zobrist. Or Matt Joyce. Or Desmond Jennings. Or any of the rest of them.
At this point, however, standing pat is a luxury the Rays cannot afford. At this point, the only question is how severely this roster is reshaped.
Start with Price. It should go without saying that no one wants to see Price go, the same way no one wanted to see Carl Crawford go, the same way no one wanted to see James Shields go. In baseball, small market teams losing stars is part of the business. Any time someone wants to start a collection to see Price stay, I'm all for it.
But if Price is going to go, this seems like the right time. Yes, you can chatter all you want about how winning makes it more likely that he will hang around, but on the other hand, pitching excellence makes it more likely he will go. It's hard to say where, because most of us never have any idea (beyond rumor) what other teams are offering.
Ask yourself, though. When will there ever be a better time to trade Price? He is at the top of his game, and there are several teams that could use him. That means there should be a nice return for him.
After that, the question is how much the Rays wish to start over. Zobrist is a nice player, and he has been a great guy for this franchise. Joyce, a popular guy, will be sought after. Jennings, maybe? Yunel Escobar? James Loney? Grant Balfour?
Do the Rays move all of them? Most of them? Do they weigh the possible return for each? And if they do, how hard is it going to be for Rays fans to embrace a new lineup?
In some ways, you could argue that rebuilding the Rays is going to be almost as difficult as building them was in the first place. No, the franchise isn't the dysfunctional mess that it was in those days. But there haven't been years of drafting in the top five, either. These days, the expectations are a bit higher. Fans expect 90 wins. That's the new standard.
Really, that's the question here. How does Tampa Bay get to 90 wins in 2015? In 2016? The conclusion is that the deck has to be reshuffled.
In their recent history, the trading deadline has always been more popular with the rest of us than it has been with the Rays. In ordinary circumstances, this has not been a reactionary team. Most years there are a lot of (rumored) trades the general populace would have made that the team did not.
But these are not ordinary circumstances. It has been a very long time since the Rays have had a winning percentage of .454. They aren't just out of the list of teams that matter, they're out of the conversation about it.
Friedman is smart enough to know that, too.
After all, don't you want to trade these days for better ones?