Sometimes it seems the Rays have been on the verge of trading David Price almost as long as they've had David Price. That, frustratingly and unfailingly, is life in a market in which the payroll must always be pinched.
But next week's Winter Meetings -- or, given the flurry of activity in the Majors this week, even sooner than that -- do offer the potential of actual action on the Price trade front.
In a free-agent market woefully thin on starting-pitcher talent, the 28-year-old Price's presence as an ace with Cy Young standing and a left arm that makes magic is as tantalizing as they come. He wouldn't come cheap, in either prospect outpouring or eventual arbitration dollars in his two remaining seasons of contractual control, but he can alter the outlook for a rotation and an organization. If the Rays do pull the trigger on a trade, they'd be moving one of the offseason's biggest prizes.
Yet while all that is going on, another able, if not as breathlessly advertised, pitcher might also be available. And it can be argued that he'd be the smarter buy.
I'm talking about Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija, whose trade potential could also pick up pace in the coming hours and days, but only if the Cubs are suitably swayed.
That's the "if" that must be brought up with both of these guys, because the fact of the matter is that they're both under contractual control for two more years and neither the Rays nor the Cubs are in a position in which they must deal their Opening Day starter.
Having said that, barring any surprise high-profile acquisitions on the free-agent front, the Cubs do appear to be open for business in the trade market, likely to use 2014 as, hopefully, the final building block for their burgeoning farm system that is loaded with bats, with an eye on a more earnest National League Central bid in 2015 and beyond.
The Cubs' patience and plotting, guided by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, has always made sense for them. But it might not make as much sense for Samardzija, who is about to turn 29, is two years away from free agency and has the competitiveness and confidence to believe he should be pitching in October.
As in, next October.
On the heels of his standout career as a Notre Dame wide receiver, Samardzija leveraged his NFL chances to make his first professional contract a five-year, $10 million deal with a $2.5 million signing bonus. So from a financial perspective, he hasn't had any real or pressing need to rush into a club-friendly extension with the Cubs, though the Cubs have certainly made efforts toward that end.
From the Cubs' perspective, there is not a direct desire to move a healthy arm under reasonable contractual control, and there is also the nagging sense that Samardzija's trade value might only increase in the coming year. But if an opportunistic club comes along with the right proposal, perhaps the "Shark" could be snagged.
Samardzija would be a worthwhile target. His 2013 ERA of 4.34 was profoundly pedestrian. But even an old-school organization such as San Francisco, which promised Tim Lincecum $35 million after he amassed a two-year ERA tally of 4.76, has shown that baseball executives understand the sometimes misleading nature of the oft-cited stats.
Much more encouraging, if you delve a little deeper, is the 3.77 fielding independent pitching mark Samardzija posted this year, as well as his 3.45 xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching). He's 6-foot-5, routinely clocks a fastball in the mid-90s and struck out nine batters per nine innings. Combine all that with Samardzija's positive numbers from his first season as a starter in 2012 (3.81 ERA, 9.3-per-nine strikeout rate), and you've got a lot to chew on.
In today's game, given the rapid rise of strikeout totals, if you don't have a durable power pitcher in your arsenal, you're behind the curve. Samardzija has amassed the Majors' 12th-best strikeout rate among starters over the past two years, and a 2.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio overall. And while Samardzija can't match Price's current credentials, the cost of acquiring him wouldn't be anywhere near as crippling as they could be for Price.
With Price, you have to balance the enthusiasm over the splash his arrival would bring against the worry about the risk you're taking on. The Rays are perpetually in win-now mode, which means they will target Major League-ready talent as much as projectability. If they got a legitimate top-five prospect on the cusp of the bigs for James Shields, what will they want for Price?
A lot, that's what.
If you're the Mariners, that means a package built around Taijuan Walker, who might have ace potential all his own. If you're the Rangers, it could mean parting with Jurickson Profar or Martin Perez. If you're the D-backs, you might have to let the Rays touch the seemingly untouchable Archie Bradley. If you're the Pirates, you might have to brace yourself for the possibility of watching Jameson Taillon blossom with Tampa Bay.
Not to mention the fact that Price could command somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million in arbitration over the next two years.
So, yes, Price is captivating, but he certainly isn't cheap. And because all pitchers have an expiration date and Price has already logged 1,156 professional innings before his age-28 season, any trade for Price will be both a thrilling and a dangerous proposition. After all, 2013 brought him his first DL stint (triceps strain) and a noticeable dip in velocity.
Samardzija would come with a fresher arm (he's only been a starter for two seasons, and he's thrown 113 fewer professional innings), a much more attractive financial package (Samardzija made $2.6 million this year and is first-time arb-eligible) and perhaps more upward mobility if he gets out of the Wrigley bandbox (Price, of course, has pitched his home games in much more favorable conditions at Tropicana Field).
I don't know if either guy will be dealt this coming week or this winter. In fact, I'd still label a Samardzija trade a long shot, despite some recent reports.
But I do know that, between the two, Samardzija looks like the much better bargain.