It was a pity that the Boston Red Sox won their game versus the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday. Although it wasn’t even clear even before the first game of the series between the two teams, the game meant a lot more for the Rays than it did for the Red Sox. The Rays, after looking like sellers almost the entire season, have turned everything around and now look primed to compete for the AL East title. The Red Sox, meanwhile, traded their original starter for Sunday’s game, Jake Peavy, to the San Francisco Giants and are now listening on a bevy of other players. Only three games separate the two teams in the standings, but it might as well be 10 or 15 based on the divergent ways they are operating. For the Rays, the results of this season will show whether they are making the right decision.
It worked out well for baseball’s pursuers of topflight starting pitching that right as a David Price trade stopped being imminent, a trade of the Red Sox’ Jon Lester became all the more likely. It is debatable which ace left-hander is better, and Price comes with an additional year of team control, but the teams that were going after Price can instead target Lester and just maybe acquire him at a lesser cost. There is a fundamental difference, however, between the Rays’ decision to trade Price and the Red Sox’ decision to deal Lester: only the Red Sox can have their cake and eat it too. Lester has made it clear that he would be interested in returning to Boston as a free agent even if he is traded, giving the Red Sox the opportunity to have both their frontline lefty and the prospects he would net them in a trade. The Red Sox would lose Lester for the rest of this season, when they are not trying to win games, and then have a reasonable chance of getting him back as they hope to turn themselves around in 2015. That is an enviable arrangement and the Red Sox could not ask for anything better. For the Rays, though, trading Price–or not trading him–is a much greater risk.
With their minor league system not what it once was, the Rays holding onto Price for any longer means putting the future of their franchise in jeopardy. They are risking the fate of teams years down the line in exchange for a chance at making the postseason now. They could still get strong offers for Price in the offseason, but if keeping him is going to be worthwhile, Price better lead the Rays back to promised land. The Rays are playing their best baseball right now and it would be sad if that was ended prematurely. This Rays team deserves the opportunity to pursue the first playoff berth in baseball history by a team that was 18 games under .500. But as ironic as it may seem, the Rays’ winning this season makes them vulnerable in the long-term. Instead of being in the driver’s seat at the trade deadline, the Rays will be forced to contend with all the variables they can’t account for and hope, without necessarily a rational reason to do so, that everything will work out. The scenario where Price leads the Rays to the postseason (and, in the Rays’ minds, beyond) and still gets traded for a significant return is tantalizing. The scenario where Price gets injured and the Rays finish in fourth in the AL East could send the franchise a knockout punch it could take years to recover from. There are a multiplicity of outcomes in between, but in what proportion of them will holding onto Price work out for the Rays?
It is exhilarating for the Tampa Bay Rays that they have turned their season around, but with that resurgence disappeared the comfort of the process, the comfort of trading David Price. The Rays can’t say that no matter what happens the rest of this year, they will have made their team better for seasons to come. For a franchise with greater analytical abilities than any of its counterparts in baseball and just maybe in sports, faith will have to replace what the numbers say to do as they keep David Price for a chance–and nothing more–at greatness.