By Michael Clair
It wasn't supposed to end like this. The Rays were supposed to be smarter, they were going to draft and develop stars, become a dynasty and wield their extra 2 percent like a psychic sword cutting through the rest of the league. David Price, the team's ace and winner of the 2012 Cy Young Award, was supposed to lead the charge along with Evan Longoria. But despite winning 90-plus games four years in a row, the fans haven't shown up, preferring instead to watch from home. The Rays have been left to rely on their surplus of young pitching, Longoria's indentured servitude, under-appreciated players like Ben Zobrist, and castoffs from the waste bin like Delmon Young and Yunel Escobar.
Their plan, like most of Walter White's, was 99 percent successful, failing only when luck and randomness came into play. The team proved they could win in the regular season and compete against their large market brethren, but barring a miraculous comeback, the Rays will once again have to reload for another season. In Saturday's 7-4 loss, putting the club in a 2-0 ALDS hole against the Red Sox, David Price (7+ IP, 9 H, 7 ER) most likely made his last start as a Tampa Bay Ray.
Though he has two more years under team control, Price earned $10.11 million this season, taking up nearly a sixth of the club's payroll. With the Rays needing to maximize their return on investment and with team owner Stuart Sternberg saying that the attendance issues will make an impact on next year's payroll, it doesn't seem possible for the team to keep a pitcher who, at 27, is already 71-39 with a 3.19 ERA and 8.1 K/9. Price is second only to James Shields for the team lead in most major statistical categories, and given another season or two in that domed monstrosity, would probably lead in all of them.
From the first inning on Saturday, it was a different Price we were watching. It was not the reliever that came out of the bullpen to shut down the Red Sox in the '08 playoffs (a lifetime ago) or the pitcher that has posted a 2.93 ERA in 20 regular-season starts against the Red Sox. He struggled with command, leaving eminently hittable pitches over the middle of the plate. His arm-side two-seamers were seemingly unaffected by Earth's gravitational field, floating high and away.
It was similar to Clayton Kershaw's work in the early innings in Game 1 of L.A.'s series with Atlanta, except where Kershaw gave up on his fastball, eventually moving to his slider and curve to rack up 12 strikeouts, Price doubled down. During the regular season, Price used his four-seamer, two-seamer or cutter about 62 percent of the time, but 85 percent of his pitches on Saturday were fastballs. Price didn't even give his curveball a chance, tossing it only twice, his first coming in the bottom of the fifth.
But Price battled through, somehow lasting into the eighth inning, either because of the "look in his eyes" that the TBS broadcast pointed out, or that Joe Maddon simply forgot he had a bullpen. When David Ortiz hit his second home run, after Price had given up only two home runs to left-handed batters in the regular season, it ended Price's night and a stretch of seven straight batters retired.
It nearly could have gone another way, though. For those that look at baseball as a game of wild, maddening chaos, one that is broken into 18 half-inning chunks so as to make some semblance of sense, it could have been an entirely different game. In an alternate universe, one in which the Red Sox are clean-shaven, Tampa citizens fill the Trop every evening, and biofuel-powered jet packs are the most popular form of transportation, Price's Tampa career could have a happier ending.
Sure, Price didn't have great command, the Red Sox peppering the outfield with hard hit balls all night, but what if Jacoby Ellsbury's two nothings of hits find gloves? That's two runs off the scoreboard.
What if David DeJesus makes the leaping catch in front of the Green Monster on Stephen Drew's fourth-inning triple? Or the Rays don't hit into three double plays, their grounders hit just a hair slower, or harder, or they kick off a pebble and give a bad bounce? What if Delmon Young doesn't swing and miss at the first pitch in each of his at-bats? (OK, that's stretching the bounds of believability. Even in an alternate universe, Young has no plate discipline.)
All of a sudden, the Red Sox don't have the lead anymore and the Rays could very well have scored a few more times off of John Lackey. In this alternate reality, the series is now tied at one and the Rays are guaranteed to get the sweet, sweet postseason revenue of at least two more home games.
But if we allow ourselves to fully exist in this other world where the Rays are one of the top draws in baseball, maybe it's not David Price's last start with the team. With a stadium filled with paying fans that have shelled out thousands of dollars on concessions and merchandise, Price stays with the team through his arbitration years. Maybe this is a team that can sign a top free agent that helps lead them through the insanity of the postseason and to a World Series championship.
But now we're trapped in the vicious cycle of alternate realities, because maybe these freewheeling Rays have allowed money to cloud their judgment. Maybe they don't sign a resurgent James Loney and, without his two RBIs in Saturday's game, lose anyway. Maybe in this world David Price is evil and has a goatee. Or decides that he doesn't like baseball and would prefer to live his days as a manager at Kinko's. Maybe this universe is the very best the Rays can do.
These are the kinds of reasons we don't think about parallel universes very often, the very makeup of reality crumbling around us the farther we look down the rabbit hole.
The Rays will try and trade David Price in the offseason, hoping to hit gold like they have so many times before. But even a team with a front office so highly respected has seen its talent pipeline dry up without the high draft picks they were previously afforded.
Just look at the string of Rays draft picks since Price was selected in 2007. Including supplemental picks, the Rays have selected 16 players in the first round through 2012, Tim Beckham's eight major league at-bats the extent of their impact on the big-league roster. (Granted, there's still time for many of the players, but few outside of Taylor Guerrieri have excited prospect hounds.)
It's also incredibly hard to spin the roulette wheel of established talent for minor league prospects and walk away flush. See the abundance of teams like the Indians, who traded CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee for eventual role players and relievers. Or the Pirates, who dealt Jason Bay for a number of busts. Or any number of teams throughout baseball history who have been burned on their dreams of the future. Not every deal can be James Shields for Wil Myers.
The Rays could come back and go on to win the World Series that they seemed destined to win. Stuart Sternberg could wake up tomorrow and find gold bullion bars buried under center field in Tropicana Field, enough of them to sign Price until he retires. One of the alternate reality David Prices could get sucked in a wormhole, come to this planet and, under a loophole in the CBA, be considered Rays property for the next six years. Those are all conceivable, though unlikely, possibilities.
Instead, in the harsh reality of our world, David Price has probably thrown his last pitch as a Tampa Bay Ray. This isn't how things were supposed to end.
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