ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — So Friday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Rays began life without David Price, a four-time All-Star and the former unquestioned anchor of their rotation.
The dialogue in their clubhouse, after one of the wildest trade deadline days in recent memory, was a curious mix of acceptance that the 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner was bound for the Detroit Tigers and an awareness that they can’t allow this whale of a speed bump to slow their drive toward a surprise postseason berth. They lived two pulls, both strong.
On one hand, players spoke of Price like someone might after a mutual end of a long-term relationship because their partner moved across the country. Third baseman Evan Longoria, while saying he’ll continue to value Price’s friendship, added that baseball "does have a way of forgetting guys really quickly." Right-hander Chris Archer, Price’s former mentee within the rotation, added that "it’s kind of a personal thing initially, but there’s nothing personal in this game. It’s a business."
On the other, everyone was left to bargain how Price’s trade, part of a three-way deal that delivered the Rays utility player Nick Franklin from the Seattle Mariners, plus left-hander Drew Smyly and shortstop prospect Willy Adames from the Tigers, wouldn’t derail their growing hopes to reach the playoffs. That part remains the largest question, and these Rays will be defined by how they respond.
"It’s part of the gig," Rays designated hitter Matt Joyce said, before a 5-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels at Tropicana Field. "Everybody understands we’re not throwing in the towel whatsoever. We’ll come back and play our game and continue to play really good baseball and leave it all out there."
The Rays are at a crossroads. Yes, it was best for the franchise’s long-term financial health that Price and his $14 million salary were shipped to the Motor City. Yes, it was best that they received two major-league-ready players in return — plus another who could be the most promising of them all — to stick to their time-tested way of doing business. Yes, it was best that they made this move if Andrew Friedman felt the time was right, especially with Price under team control until after next season.
The most interesting thing moving forward, though, is how the Rays clubhouse will treat the loss of one of their staples since 2008. The trade’s psychological message is obvious: Team officials have at least one eye, if not more, on 2015.
Certainly, the Price trade wasn’t a complete fire sale. It’s possible that team officials have faith in the Rays’ ability to rally for October, since other rumored trade pieces like Joyce and utility man Ben Zobrist remained with Tampa Bay on Friday. All isn’t lost, and players would be wise to move forward as if they believe they have a chance to catch the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East and the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees and other threats in a sprint for the second AL wild-card spot.
Still, on a day when they bid farewell to one of their best ever, the Rays also argued why they’ll remain in postseason contention. It was a sign of confusing times, when two opposites were rationalized to give purpose to the rest of the season’s second half. Players can talk about not "throwing in the towel," but until they show it in the coming weeks with sustained winning minus No. 14, questions about the impact of Price’s departure will continue.
"Hopefully, this is a situation where we can have an opportunity to reach our potential," Archer said, "just because maybe we’ll get an extra inning, we’ll get an extra couple pitches to really show what we’re capable of doing."
"I think the understanding will be that we all are going to have to pull the collective weight of David on a daily basis, which will be tough," Longoria said. "He brought a ton of energy to the ballpark."
"I think this is a time for other people to accelerate their games and then become more of a household name," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It’s called opportunity for me. When you get in these moments — and there are guys that have been clamoring for the moment — now here it is. Now here’s your opportunity."
The opportunity is present for many. There are the starters, including Smyly, who must pick up more innings with Price’s staff-high 170 2/3 innings gone. There are the bullpen options who will receive a larger workload without the almost-lockdown guarantee that Price would go at least seven innings every five days. There are the veteran clubhouse leaders, like Longoria, who must make sure the team stays motivated.
"The way he is in the clubhouse with everybody, with the fans — you’re losing a big guy," Rays catcher Jose Molina said. "I’m just sad to see him go, but you know what? We’ve got to just move on."
Moving on is something the Rays have done before. From Matt Garza to Carl Crawford, from B.J. Upton to James Shields, they have parted ways with teammates and trusted friends as part of their financial reality.
But Price’s departure feels different because it comes in the middle of the season, just as the Rays had found life with a 29-13 run from June 11 to the start of play Friday. It was never said, but the surge likely was made possible, in part, because of players’ urgency to keep Price with the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline drawing closer by the day.
How will the clubhouse respond with that motivation gone? Where will the new inspiration come?
What the Rays can’t allow is a lost finish to the season, with their playoff hopes becoming as hollow as Price’s two former clubhouse stalls looked Friday afternoon. His past was boxed up, the sneakers and gum dispenser and the rest of his belongings gone, only a small group of black plastic hangers in the left stall dangling as a sign of a life in transition.
"The thing he kept reiterating last night was how much he was going to miss us," said Rays right-hander Alex Cobb, who visited Price’s house Thursday night along with other rotation members like Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson. "You could tell that’s all he wanted to say, that’s all he wanted to talk about was just the fact that he was going to miss us.
"There’s no one thing that he said specifically about coming from this organization going to a different organization. We stayed away from all that. It was a really fun night just hanging out together for one last time as a group. We tried to keep it as normal as possible and not talk about all the surrounding circumstances."
The faster the Rays move past those circumstances and Price’s large shadow, the better.