ST. PETERSBURG — With less than six weeks before pitchers and catchers begin pitching and catching in Port Charlotte, the question surrounding the Tampa Bay Rays' offseason remains: What about David Price?
All signs point to Price being traded this winter.
Owner Stuart Sternberg said in late September the 2014 payroll would be reduced after the Rays finished last in attendance in 2013.
Price is projected to make $13.1 million in 2014.
Price has two years before he reaches free agency, the same point when the Rays traded Matt Garza and James Shields.
The Rays will never get a better return for Price than they will if they trade him now.
Yet the front office has maintained it can make it work in 2014 with Price, and on Friday executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said the 2014 payroll projects to be a record high. One assumes it can only top the $72.8 million payroll of 2010 if it includes Price.
When explaining why the payroll could be so high, Friedman said, “... we feel like we have a really good chance to be great next year. That's why we're doing what we're doing.”
The Rays' chances of being great in 2014 would be greatly enhanced with Price at the top of the rotation.
Pitchers and catchers report in 40 days, which means the Rays are laser focused on the upcoming season. The chances of Price facing the Blue Jays on Opening Day at Tropicana Field grow as each day passes.
That's not to say a trade won't happen this side of New Year's Day. Wednesday is the anniversary of Garza's trade. Also, Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka could play a factor.
The period to sign Tanaka ends Jan. 24 at 5 p.m., and those teams that have posted for the right to negotiate but do not land the right-hander might turn their efforts toward Price.
The Rays are asking a lot in return for Price. If they receive an offer that makes sense, they will make the trade. If not, they will make a run at playing those meaningful games in September and winning the AL East with the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner even if it means the highest payroll in team history.
There is a precedent — 2010.
Both Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña were in the final year of multi-year deals, with Crawford making $10 million and Peña making $10.125 million. There was no question both would not be re-signed after 2010. One or both could have been moved for prospects to clear payroll before that season, but the Rays were much better with those two, so the decision was made to go all-in for a return to the World Series in exchange for compensation picks in the 2011 draft when Crawford and Peña signed elsewhere.
Also, Sternberg said in early December 2009 that there was no $7 million closer on the horizon. A week later, Friedman traded for and signed Rafael Soriano for $7.5 million.
While Sternberg talks about a payroll that won't tax the team's revenue, he is willing to OK big-money deals if they can put the Rays in better position to reach the postseason.
That's why Friedman signed off this winter on multi-year deals for James Loney, David DeJesus and Ryan Hanigan and was willing to take on salary with Heath Bell.
And that's why Price leading the staff in 2014 remains a possibility.
The Rays claimed LHP Pedro Figueroa off released waivers, meaning Figueroa has until Wednesday to accept or decline and become a free agent. If he accepts, he is expected to begin the year at Triple-A Durham. ... Friedman said he is looking to add another bench player and remains on the lookout for another arm for the bullpen. ... The 40-man roster is at 40 with Loney's contract official. ... There is a possibility that OF Sam Fuld returns on a minor-league contract, though Fuld is drawing interest from other teams.