How long will Price be in Tampa Bay?

David Price is the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, the face of the Tampa Bay Rays, and the smiling, tweeting star chosen for the MLB 2K13 video game cover.

He’s also a Vanderbilt-educated realist.

“I do know this could be my last year here — or half-year, whatever it is,” Price acknowledged Tuesday, during an interview with FOXSports.com at the Rays’ spring complex. “I do realize that. (Until) that time gets a little bit closer, I’m not going to put any extra thought into it, because it doesn’t matter if I think about it or not.

“I have no say-so in what goes on the next three years of my career. It’s all up to the organization. I don’t think about it. If that’s what they feel they need to do, then they’ll do it.”

Price received a fresh reminder of that in December, when the Rays traded his close friend and fellow starter James Shields to the Kansas City Royals. Including a 2014 team option, the Rays held two years of control on Shields when they traded him. Price will be just as close to free agency when this season is over.

The Rays love Price. Price loves the Rays. But that’s not enough to make this a long-term marriage. The price of elite pitching is at an all-time high, as evidenced by Felix Hernandez’s $175 million deal. The Rays, stuck in fiscal purgatory without a new stadium, probably can’t afford a similar contract for Price in their current payroll structure. Price, who will earn slightly more than $10 million in base salary this season, said there is “nothing new” to report on the possibility of a multiyear extension.

All of this has put Price, 27, in a unique position: With Shields gone, he has become the staff’s veteran leader and unofficial caretaker of the Rays’ spring rituals. “He’s out there to maintain the traditions we’ve established and maybe add some of his own,” manager Joe Maddon observed. But even as Price becomes more integral to the team’s fabric, the left-hander knows he, too, may be called into a tearful meeting with Maddon and general manager Andrew Friedman during the next 12 months.

The only surefire way to avoid that would be a club-friendly extension. And Price — who has earned more than $20 million, when factoring in this year’s salary — has zero incentive to do that. Price said he’s “not taking a discount.”

“I don’t play this game for the money, but I don’t want to be underappreciated,” Price said. “What I’ve done for this organization so far, I feel like I’ve helped this organization a great deal. So if they want to show me some appreciation, then fine.

"They know I would love to be here. They know that. Everybody here knows that. If we can make that happen then we will. If not, then I’ll do it the other way.”

No one can blame Price. No one can blame the Rays. Unless a shovel drops from the sky and commences on the foundation of a retractable-roof ballpark in downtown Tampa, we know how this movie will end.

It’s too bad that financial matters periodically ruin the fun of baseball’s most likeable team. The Rays are an unconventional band of winners bound together by the culture of acceptance and ethos of joy. With a mood that’s more campus frathouse than controlled clubhouse, it’s no wonder that ex-Rays pine for their alma mater even while earning fatter paychecks elsewhere.

Price hasn’t lived it. Yet. But knows former teammates feel the tug.

“Everybody misses this atmosphere – it’s not just James Shields,” Price said. “It’s everybody that’s been traded or hit free agency from here and left and got their millions of dollars. They all miss it. We do things differently over here. We have freedom. We’re treated like grown men. Other places, it’s a penitentiary.

“Joe wants us to be comfortable in our own skin. He doesn’t care what we do in the locker room. He doesn’t care what type of music we play, how loud we play it. He doesn’t care what we wear to the field, because that’s not going to help us be better baseball players. That (would give) us more reasons to mess up, more reasons to get a fine, more reasons to be mad about coming to the ballpark because you have to wear slacks and a collared shirt in 100-degree weather.

“It’s a joke to me, that I had less rules in college than I would on some major league teams. That’s not my style, man. I couldn’t do it on some of these teams I hear about. I couldn’t do it. I’m a grown man.”

Price spoke for several minutes about “how good we have it here,” even making special mention of the team’s athletic training staff. He added: “If I ever did hit that free-agent market, there would be teams I wouldn’t sign with simply because of the stuff that I’ve heard – every rule they have. Being here since 2007, being treated like a grownup, given that respect and freedom and space – it grows on you.”

Taking note of his beard, I told Price he’d have to shave if the Yankees traded for him.

“I wouldn’t stay there very long then,” he responded. “I wouldn’t sign a long-term deal there. Those rules, that’s old-school baseball. I was born in ’85. That’s not for me. That’s not something I want to be a part of.”

(Guess I can scratch that Price-to-the-Yankees rumor from my 2015-2016 offseason notebook.)

Of greater immediate concern is 2013. The Rays lost Shields and center fielder B.J. Upton after their third consecutive 90-win season. The team remains formidable, with a rotation consisting of Price, 2012 Gold Glove winner Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb, Chris Archer or Odorizzi. “It’s different,” Niemann said of the rotation, sans Shields. “But you look at the names, you look at the depth, and we still have seven or eight guys who can get the job done.”

Yet, a fast start is paramount if Rays players wish to convince Friedman that the band needs to stay together through the upcoming season. Otherwise, “David Price 2013” will make the baseball media forget about “Roy Halladay 2009” and “Cliff Lee 2010” and every other ace-on-the-market fascination we’ve had.

Price said he has felt no anxiety about the possibility of being traded, reasoning that the mound would be 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate in any other stadium.

“That’s not going to change my demeanor,” he said. “I’m going to be the same person.” But he’s also wary of the way some Rays fans reacted toward Shields after he was dealt.

“Rays fans think it’s loyalty,” Price said. “It’s not (a question of) loyalty, because I have nothing to do with it for the next three years. Our fan base feels like Shields wasn’t loyal because he left the Rays. Shields had nothing to do with that. They need to be thanking James Shields for being able to get (Jake) Odorizzi and (Wil) Myers and (Mike) Montgomery in return. He served his time here. Obviously, everybody would have loved to see him stay. But that’s just the way this organization is.”

Price is right. Intellectually, the Rays’ business reality makes sense to him. And yet there will come a time when it doesn’t seem fair, on the day a knowing clubhouse attendant tells him, "Hey, Joe needs to see you." His goodbye will come, too, and this one will hurt most of all.