ST. PETERSBURG — By winning as much as they have recently — 25 of 36 games, 16 of 20 and seven straight — the Rays have played themselves back into at least the conversation if not contention for a playoff spot.
And their bosses into a bind.
What six weeks ago seemed like a near certainty to trade ace David Price and possibly other veterans for young players has become a fascinating — and potentially excruciatingly difficult — decision to be made before next Thursday's trade deadline.
"We approach every trade as a balancing act, and this year is no different," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said Thursday. "Any trades we make, as well as trades we decide not to make, would alter the course of this season and future seasons."
Ultimately the decision will come down to whether the Rays are offered enough — presumably a couple of elite-level prospects/young big-leaguers with the potential to be impact players — to make it worthwhile, at a time when Price's value is at its highest. Or at least offered significantly more than they feel they'd get by waiting until the winter, when a team gets him for one pennant race rather than two.
How realistic Friedman and his bosses view their chances to get into — and advance in — the postseason with Price is also a factor, creating what might be akin to dual sliding scales.
Price accepts that the decision is out of his control, but he is making it more difficult — and more alluring for interested teams — with a potentially career-best run of pitching, 6-1, 1.45 over his past seven starts, 6-3, 1.72 over 10.
And there is a strong feeling among Rays players that they've done enough to diminish the possibility of a deal — "It'd be pretty surprising," third baseman Evan Longoria said — and earned the right to keep the team intact.
"It will be devastating to lose some guys here if it was to happen," starter Alex Cobb said. "You're in this environment, you see the mojo back, the magic."
As the Rays likely go right up to the 4 p.m. July 31 deadline to make what could be the biggest decision in baseball, here are some other factors:
Where would Price go?
Most of the recent speculation has centered on three teams, the Cardinals, Dodgers and Mariners.
Each seems to meet the criteria to make a deal: contending, needing a top-end starter, having the prospects to offer and the money to pay Price.
But each would also have a reason not to. Is it worth it for the Mariners to give up a haul when their best hope appears a wild-card spot, and Price is unlikely to stick around past 2015? For the Dodgers when they have a stacked rotation and Price would be their No. 2 or 3 starter? For the usually conservative development-based Cardinals at the cost of a future foundation piece such as outfielder Oscar Taveras?
While those three teams have been getting attention, know there are others not only less publicly involved but potentially even more likely to make a deal. Some possibilities? The Giants, Blue Jays, Angels and Cubs.
Is wild enough?
As much of a feel-good story as their comeback would be from 18 games under .500, and as emphatically as manager Joe Maddon preaches his confidence — "I firmly believe we're in this, and everybody in our front office knows how I feel," he said — the bosses operate more analytically than emotionally.
So while the Rays (49-53) woke up Thursday within 4½ games of the second American League wild-card spot and within seven of the AL East lead, there are going to be more important numbers crunched by their computers to determine how realistic their chances really are, based on schedule, health, competition and other factors. Plus, this may be a tough week, with the rival Red Sox and NL-best Brewers in town. Price starts tonight and likely Wednesday.
ESPN's computer projection gives them a 10.4 percent chance to make the playoffs; Baseball Prospectus has them at 12.1 percent, and 7.6 to win the division.
That raises another question: Is a strong chance at getting to the wild-card game (and likely playing it on the road) enough incentive to pass on a good deal for Price, or do they have to have a promising shot at winning the division to make it worthwhile, and what is that tipping point?
The Rays could trade Price, get a big-league pitcher back, and claim to still be competing, which will be a tough sell in the clubhouse. But it seems just as likely that if they deal Price, they look to move other veterans making decent money, with infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist, outfielder Matt Joyce, shortstop Yunel Escobar, right-hander Grant Balfour, catcher Jose Molina, first baseman James Loney, infielder/outfielder Sean Rodriguez and right-hander Jeremy Hellickson all possibilities.
Losing key players is part of the Rays way of doing business. But this would be different because Price is not only their best pitcher but a huge part of the team and the clubhouse culture.
"I'm not going to lie, it's going to (stink)," Longoria said.
But, he added, the Rays know it can go either way.
"I firmly believe whatever the decision is, that Andrew and the front office will have the best interests of the team going forward at heart," he said.
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.