Price starts season-long study of his value

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — David Price lounged in a chair near his locker, ready to carry on in a new landscape for him and his franchise.

More than three hours before first pitch Tuesday, the scene in the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse appeared like a typical one at the office for the 27-year-old returning American League Cy Young Award winner. He leaned back in his spot wearing blue shorts and a black tank top, bantering with relievers Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos a few feet away. Nearby, a television beamed highlights of the Atlanta Braves’ victory over the Philadelphia Phillies from Monday, a game that included former Rays centerfielder B.J. Upton, now with the Braves after signing a five-year, $75 million deal in November.

Eventually, Price surrendered two runs and seven hits in six innings during a 7-4 loss to the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field. He looked far from sharp at times in the season opener, but his outing was enough to give the Rays a 3-2 lead upon his departure. The effort was another display of his value.

The performance closed a spring of questions for the left-hander. This season, Price will work in an environment where the cost of pitching continues to rise with little indication that the market’s race toward the sky will slow.

Last Friday, Detroit Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander became the majors’ highest-paid pitcher by receiving a deal that could pay him $202 million over the next eight seasons. This leaves Tampa Bay in a hard spot. The Rays will move forward in regards to Price’s future, like Upton and others before, with wait-and-see caution … emphasis on the “see.”

“It’s a growing process,” said Price, who struck out four batters Tuesday. “You don’t just come out here and turn yourself into Cy Young … in the first outing. I’m fine with the way I threw the ball today. Like I said, I battled.

“I don’t feel like I had my best stuff today. I’ve got to give credit to Baltimore. That’s a very good-hitting team; one through nine can swing the bat.”

This was Part One of a season-long study of Price and how the market will evaluate him. Financial realities of a pitching arms race have shifted against savvy, but limited, franchises like the Rays.

In addition to Verlander, Seattle Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez signed a seven-year, $175 million extension in February. Right-hander Zack Greinke signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers last December for $147 million over six years. Meanwhile, Price will make $10.1125 million this season in a one-year deal, after he earned $4.35 million last year.

In many ways, these elite contracts can be irresponsible. Arms are fragile, fleeting and inconsistent. The investment is risky, but there’s no going back. This is the frontier Price and the Rays work within, and both parties have a responsibility to do what’s best for them.

Certainly, choices will be made. The game’s trend is moving toward more expensive deals, more lavish paychecks for the game’s greatest arms. Yes, it will take creative maneuvering to keep Price with the Rays, to give him more chances to make Opening Day starts in a Tampa Bay uniform. This is no surprise, given Verlander’s deal and others like it across the game.

“I think it’s baseball,” principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Tuesday of the Rays’ tendency toward turnover. “Clearly, with B.J. being a free agent, he had the right to go and the ability to go. James (Shields) was a choice of ours. Sometimes, we have to make decisions like that.”

There’s no way to tell where a future decision will leave Price, of course. But his case is an interesting study in how money can complicate a situation. It was easy to hear the pregame ovation he received from the 34,078 fans in attendance Tuesday and wonder if all this could last for as long as he climbs a mound.

As recently as March 10, the pitcher said, “I could spend my whole career here. I feel at home with this organization.” But in the same interview, he admitted that he understands the current cost of pitching, which he should. This is the yin and yang of his stardom: He has a love for Tampa Bay’s culture, but he also feels a pull to receive fair payment for his talent.

The bottom line: The Rays opened the season with a team salary of $61.488 million. Only five teams had a smaller amount than Tampa Bay’s $64.1735 million from last year. Compare those figures to the New York Yankees’ record-setting $230.4 million payroll this season.

Imbalance is part of life here. So is an urgency to make the most of less.

“He’s not the first, and he’s not the last,” Sternberg said of Verlander’s contract. “It’s nothing new. … We have the desire, we have the ability to spend real money in the context of what the organization can afford.”

But will another Evan Longoria-like deal be built for Price? It’s hard to tell. It’s little surprise, but Sternberg has used Longoria as an example that Tampa Bay can spend when necessary.

Longoria signed a six-year, $100 million extension in November that will make the three-time All-Star a franchise cornerstone for the future. The deal was done for good reason: Longoria has the drive, the power, the look of a star.

But Price’s situation is less certain, partly because of the Rays’ commitment to their star third baseman. Price is under the Rays’ control until the 2015 season. The question is difficult, but it’s a legitimate one that must be asked: If Price is deemed too expensive at some point, should he be dealt to receive maximum value?

“He won’t change for anybody,” catcher Jose Molina said. “He seems the same to me. It’s always good, because no matter what, it helps young guys to be the same way too. That’s always good.”

“He’s going out there, and he’s one of the best players we have,” right-hander Jeremy Hellickson said. “He’s not going to give in. I just love watching him work out there.”

How many more chances will the Rays have to do so?

After his final out, Price walked toward the dugout, eyes toward the turf, his glove in his left hand. Fist bumps and high-fives from teammates awaited him in a climb below. Another beginning was over, another day’s work done.

In this season of uncertainty for him, Price’s watch has only begun.

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