When Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said Friday that they hoped to "keep the band together" in 2014, it was hard not to think about what that means for one of the team's lead singers: ace LHP David Price.
The biggest question this offseason has been when Tampa Bay would trade Price? Price's departure has been widely speculated for a number of reasons, from his expected $13 million salary, to the fact the Rays likely won't get more in return than they will now, with the former Cy Young two years away from free agency.
But Tampa Bay hasn't been in a rush to deal Price, and for good reason, needing to get blown away by an offer to part with one of the game's top pitchers.
And with Friedman saying Friday that the payroll is projecting to be an "unaffordable" franchise high - more than the $72 million in 2010 - because they feel they've got a "really good chance to be great next year," it could be a sign that they're willing to go all-in for a playoff run.
After all, it's hard to imagine the Rays being as "great" without Price.
That's not to say that Price is a lock to return in 2014, as there's still plenty of time for him to be dealt before the season, with several teams' expected bidding for RHP Masahiro Tanaka likely slowing the process down.
But pitching coach Jim Hickey says the fact that they've gotten this far - to January 4 - with no deal - it'd be "surprising" if Price wasn't there to start Opening Day.
"I wouldn't drop over dead if he ended up traded, but I'd be surprised," Hickey said. "We're going to have a damn good team, and he's a leader of the pitching staff. Even if you can cash that in for a couple of prospects, I would be a little bit surprised. We've got basically every position player back with the addition of C (Ryan Hanigan), and keep that pitching staff for the most part in tact with everybody back but (Fernando Rodney)...
"It was a little easier to deal (RHP James Shields) when you knew you had Price, not that the other guys aren't that caliber of pitcher, but David is pretty special, James is pretty special. (Trading Price) would be a big blow. Shields was a big blow. This would be a really tough body blow right there. But that being said, if it happens, here goes Matt Moore, here goes (Alex Cobb), here goes (RHP Chris) Archer, here goes (RHP Jeremy Hellickson), and we're going to win 90 games and compete."
So far, the Rays have remained mostly in tact from the group that lost in the ALDS to the eventual champion Red Sox. They've picked up the options for 2B Ben Zobrist and SS Yunel Escobar, and signing 1B James Loney to a three-year, $21 million deal that's the largest free agent contract handed out under Sternberg's ownership group. OF David DeJesus was brought back, with Hanigan and veteran reliever Heath Bell acquired in a three-team deal.
That continuity was by design.
"We really liked the group we had in terms of the way they fed off one another, challenged one another, competed together," Friedman said. "We felt like the balance and the composition and the way the guys complemented one another.. is what we're continually striving to do. We felt like if we're able to keep the band together in a lot of respects we'd be better off for it."
And that band may still include Price.