Price, who turns 27 later this month, is the favorite to win the American League Cy Young Award. The Rays control him for three more seasons after this one. And the pitcher’s salary in arbitration figures to be a still-manageable $8 million to $9.5 million in 2013.
Keep in mind as well that starting pitching is the Rays’ one competitive advantage. The team cannot compete in the AL East without striving for greatness. Subtract Price and Tampa Bay would be less competitive next season, even with the additions of Andrus and two of the Rangers’ top pitching prospects.
So, why even bring this up?
Because the Rays will need to consider trading Price eventually — most likely before ‘14, when his salary would jump to the $13 million range. And the Rangers could move Andrus as soon as this offseason, clearing short for one of the game’s top prospects, Jurickson Profar.
Of course, the Rangers might not be in any rush to make such a transition, either. Profar, 19, could open next season at Triple A. And Andrus, who turns 24 later this month, is enjoying his best all-around season.
There’s just one problem:
While Andrus is under contract at reasonable salaries of $4.8 million and $6.475 million the next two seasons, he is represented by Scott Boras, decreasing the chances of the Rangers retaining him after he becomes a free agent.
Price, as an elite starting pitcher, is more valuable than Andrus, and he also offers an extra year of control; hence, the need for the Rangers to offer top prospects to entice the Rays. And even then, the Rays likely would say, “We’ve patched together shortstop before. We can do it again. But we can’t duplicate Price.”
I can’t argue that point, but the clock is ticking for the Rays on Price, just as it is ticking for the Rangers on Andrus.
Again, I’m just speculating, and I’m probably premature.
But an interesting deal to consider, no?
NOW PLAYING SHORT: ZO-RILLA
The return of Ben Zobrist to shortstop was a typical Rays creation.
After the Rays acquired infielder Ryan Roberts in late July, they knew they might need to demote infielder Sean Rodriguez once third baseman Evan Longoria and designated hitter Luke Scott came off the disabled list.
They already had Elliott Johnson at shortstop, but the loss of Rodriguez would leave them without a backup. So, they asked Zobrist to go back to short — his original position, but one he had not played since July 25, 2009.
Zobrist started taking groundballs at short. He looked good. And suddenly, the idea gathered even greater momentum: If Zobrist could handle short, the Rays figured they would finally get some offense at the position.
Initially the Rays planned on playing Zobrist at short only behind flyball pitchers, but voila! Zobrist has started eight of Tampa Bay’s last 11 games at short, helping fuel the team’s recent surge.
“At first I was a little bit uncomfortable — it had been 3 1/2 to 4 years since I had done it (regularly),” Zobrist said Monday. “But after only playing a couple of days there, I felt pretty comfortable.
“It clicked a little bit for me in Anaheim (last Thursday). They had guys on first and second. We turned a double play — second to short to first. That was the first time I felt, ‘That’s exactly how I used to feel.’”
Zobrist said he balked at the team’s request for him to play third earlier this season after Longoria was injured — he has made only four career appearances at the position. But shortstop, he said, “is like riding a bike.”
And for the Rays, outside-the-box thinking is the norm.
“Here, not a lot of things surprise people,” Zobrist said. “It’s just another one of those, ‘I guess they’re going to try that now, see how it goes.’”
Zobrist joked that with all the Rays’ defensive shifts, he is rarely in the usual spot for a shortstop, anyway.
“It’s kind of like I’m learning a whole new position,” he said.
HERE COME THE BUCS
About 10 days ago, a rival scout warned that the Pittsburgh Pirates might collapse the way they did last season if the St. Louis Cardinals caught them in the wild-card race.
Well, the Cardinals pulled even with the Pirates last Wednesday, but the Pirates responded by winning three of their next four games, including two of three in St. Louis.
“Our young players have been through it once,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “They don’t ever want to go through it again.”
Huntington also credited three of the team’s offseason additions — right-hander A.J. Burnett, catcher Rod Barajas and shortstop Clint Barmes — for providing veteran leadership.
Burnett’s contributions are well-chronicled. Barajas (.592 OPS in 285 plate appearances) hasn’t been as productive offensively as Michael McKenry (.837 OPS in 192 PAs). But Huntington said that Barajas has had a positive impact on the team’s pitching staff, and the respective catcher’s ERAs — 3.52 for Barajas, 4.00 for McKenry — support the GM’s point.
Barmes, meanwhile, has rebounded somewhat from his miserable offensive start, batting .261 with a .644 OPS since June 2. He also remains one of the game’s top defensive shortstops, ranking seventh in the plus-minus ratings on Bill James Online.
WINTER BALL: A PLACE TO SHOW OFF
The Los Angeles Dodgers have gotten significant contributions this season from two unheralded players who made an impression on club officials while playing winter ball last offseason.
Infielder Elian Herrera, a longtime Dodgers minor leaguer, showed improvement while playing in his native Dominican Republic. Infielder Luis Cruz, then a free agent, broke out while playing in his native Mexico.
De Jon Watson, the Dodgers’ assistant GM, was looking to fill some minor-league vacancies when he heard about Cruz, who was on his way to becoming MVP of the Mexican League. Lorenzo Bundy, the Dodgers’ Triple A manager, was managing in Mexico and gave Cruz a hearty endorsement.
The Dodgers signed Cruz to a minor-league contract last Nov. 25. At that time, he had a .535 OPS in 56 major-league games with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers from 2008 to ’10. Now look at him.
Cruz, 28, filled in ably for the injured Dee Gordon at short, and has played mostly third since the Dodgers acquired Hanley Ramirez. His .814 OPS in 147 plate appearances speaks to his contribution.
“Years ago, it was not unusual for players born in the US to go to the winter leagues, play against a high level of competition, get better and augment their careers,” Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said. “Now a lot are reluctant to go.
“Both Herrera and Cruz caught our attention in winter ball, gave us faith that they could play in the big leagues by virtue of what we saw. No doubt the impression they made in winter ball forwarded the opportunity that they’ve taken advantage with us.”
The Dodgers’ rivals, the San Francisco Giants, also have benefited from the signing of a player who excelled last offseason in winter ball — outfielder Gregor Blanco, the MVP of the Venezuelan League.
SWISHER: A FASCINATING FREE AGENT
As I reported Saturday on the MLB on Fox pregame show, the New York Yankees are not ruling out keeping right fielder Nick Swisher, a potential free agent.
The Yankee have made no secret of their desire to re-sign second baseman Robinson Cano and center fielder Curtis Granderson and remain under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold in 2014.
Both Cano and Granderson are eligible for free agency after the 2013 season, and the assumption has been that the Yankees cannot stay under the threshold if they retain Swisher, too.
That probably is true — the demand for Swisher on the open market figures to carry him out of the Yankees’ price range. There also is something else for the Yankees to consider: Swisher would become a 10-and-5 man with the right to veto any trade toward the end of his second season of a new multi-year deal with New York.
Put it all together, and Swisher probably is a goner. He turns 32 on Nov. 25, but is a switch-hitter who offers versatility with his ability to play right field, left and first base.
The Dodgers have needs at two of those positions, and Swisher’s ebullient personality would be ideal for Hollywood. His wife, JoAnna Garcia, is the star of “Animal Practice” on NBC.
THE FARRELL CHRONICLES (CONTINUED)
If you’re the Toronto Blue Jays, there is only one way you would allow manager John Farrell to escape the final year of his contract and make a lateral move to the rival Boston Red Sox.
That is, if you believe that Farrell is replaceable and that you could improve the team by acquiring an asset or two for him in a trade.
On the other hand, if the Jays value Farrell, the last thing they should do is bail out the Red Sox, who will be in scramble mode if they fire Bobby Valentine and can’t bring back Farrell, their former pitching coach, as manager.
The Jays, faced last October with the same question regarding Farrell, amended their policy to block lateral moves. They likely will discuss an extension this offseason; otherwise, Farrell would enter 2013 as a lame duck in the final year of his contract.
If Farrell somehow is unhappy, then the Jays could seek to work out a deal with the Red Sox. Otherwise, they should just let the Sox stew.
PODSEDNIK’S WILD RIDE
The story of how the Red Sox re-acquired outfielder Scott Podsednik is a little bizarre, even by baseball standards.
First, Podsednik got traded along with reliever Matt Albers to the Arizona Diamondbacks on July 31, with the Sox getting reliever Craig Breslow in return.
Podsednik flew that night from Rochester to Boston to pack up his family and his belongings. The next day, the Diamondbacks asked him to go to Triple A, but Podsednik had enough service time to refuse the assignment — and did. So, the Diamondbacks granted him his release.
At that point, Podesdnik was ready to fly home to Texas with his wife and two children. He thought perhaps his career might be over. But as he was gathering their children for the ride to the airport, the Red Sox called and offered him a chance to return on a major-league contract. Naturally, he jumped.
For all the talk of the Red Sox’s injured position players, the team has gotten contributions far greater than expected from players such as Podsednik, infielder Pedro Ciriaco, third baseman Will Middlebrooks and outfielders Daniel Nava and Cody Ross.
As recently as July 31, the Red Sox led the AL in runs. They now rank third, in part due to injuries to Middlebrooks and designated hitter David Ortiz.
AROUND THE HORN
• Penalizing teams that benefit from players who use performance-enhancing drugs makes sense in theory. One exec, in fact, says he would like to see teams lose draft picks if one of their players is suspended for PED use.
In reality, though, teams can exert only so much control. Players do not live in dorms, under club supervision. They are adults, largely on their own.
• The Giants’ best deadline pickup? It’s not right fielder Hunter Pence but infielder Marco Scutaro, who initially filled in for third baseman Pablo Sandoval but has since played mostly second.
Scutaro is batting .330 with an .811 OPS in 101 plate appearances since the Giants obtained him from the Rockies on July 27. He also made a pivotal leaping catch in the Giants’ 2-1 victory over the Dodgers in the series opener on Monday night.
Pence, acquired from the Phillies on July 31, is batting .211 with a .592 OPS for the Giants in 84 plate appearances.
• The Miami Marlins must decide whether to play Emilio Bonifacio at second base or in center field next season. In addition, they need to figure out first and third base.
Third is a particularly difficult position to fill, but the Red Sox’s Danny Valencia could be one buy-low option.
Valencia, acquired by the Sox from the Minnesota Twins on Aug. 5, is a native of Boca Raton, Fla., who attended the University of Miami. He has only eight at-bats since changing teams, and Will Middlebrooks will play third for the Sox next season.
• Shortstop Ian Desmond has been one of the Nationals’ most valuable players, but a rival scout said he liked the team even better when Desmond was on the DL and the Nats went with Steve Lombardozzi at second and Danny Espinosa at short.
That might be a stretch, but Lombardozzi is a more legitimate leadoff hitter than Desmond, and Espinosa has a .852 OPS since July 1. Another scout says Lombardozzi is the Nationals’ Zobrist, a weapon at multiple positions.
It’s unlikely the Nationals will trade Desmond when they’ve resisted in the past, but their depth of young talent gives them enviable flexibility in a number of areas going forward.
• The Milwaukee Brewers, for all their troubles this season, have developed a starting pitcher, right-hander Mike Fiers, identified a second catcher, Martin Maldonado, and acquired a shortstop, Jean Segura.
Two other pitching prospects, Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg, could be in the rotation mix next season. Oh, and one other thing: Chicago Cubs fans might be stunned to learn that the Brewers are impressed by Aramis Ramirez’s leadership.
• Here is one executive’s opinion of right-hander Ethan Martin, whom the Phillies acquired from the Dodgers along with reliever Josh Lindblom in the Victorino trade:
“Everyone has a version of him.”
Martin, 23, is a combined 12-6 with a 3.22 ERA at Double A this season, but the exec cited four Dodgers pitching prospects whom he liked better: Zach Lee, Allen Webster, Chris Reed and Matt Magill.
• Don’t be surprised if the Dodgers make a waiver deal before the month is over. They completed August trades for Marlon Anderson in 2006, Greg Maddux in 2008 and Ron Belliard, Jim Thome and Jon Garland in ’09.
• Virtually every player believes he is headed for a big year in spring training, but the Cincinnati Reds’ Ryan Ludwick was quietly adamant about it when I saw him in March.
Turns out Ludwick’s confidence was justified, even though he batted only .201 with a .697 OPS through June 13. Since then, he is batting .328 with a 1.106 OPS.
Could be NL Comeback Player of the Year if not for a certain catcher in San Francisco, Buster Posey.