Goodbyes are part of the game in Tampa

There are certain things, baseball players are taught, that are part of the game. Injuries, for example. Whenever a rash of them hits a team, someone in the clubhouse moans: “Just part of the game.” And slumps. Hitters, pitchers, doesn’t really matter. Everyone, at one point or another, goes through a slump. The best rationale? “All part of the game.”

July’s chic part of the game is trade rumors, though for those wearing a Tampa Bay Rays uniform, it’s much more than that. It’s part of the Rays’ life cycle. Arrive young. Succeed. Get expensive. Find your named bandied about radio airwaves, flung every which way on the boob tube and pingponged around the Web. Leave.

B.J. Upton breaks from second base on a hit by Sam Fuld(notes) in June. Baserunning and defense make Upton a valuable trade chip.
(US Presswire)

As of now, no one is sure to go. Major league sources say the Rays are fielding calls on everyone from center fielder B.J. Upton(notes) and starter James Shields(notes) to top prospects Matt Moore(notes) and Desmond Jennings(notes), whose recall Saturday coincided with the question of whether Upton had been dealt.

The Rays, sources said, have not resigned themselves to trading Upton – not yet, not with another year before he hits free agency. The team resides in baseball no-man’s land: A good group that might not be good enough to catch the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, and one with a weak enough schedule through the July 31 trade deadline that hope remains to make up ground on the AL East powers in that time.

If they stumble, the chances of Upton going increase because he would instantly become a prize in a thin market.

Among outfielders right now, it’s Carlos Beltran(notes) and the Pips – Ryan Ludwick(notes), Josh Willingham(notes), Alfonso Soriano(notes), Melky Cabrera(notes) and other relative backup singers – and Upton clearly would be the second-best player and, some might argue, more valuable long-term because of his defense in center field and baserunning acumen.

It’s a feasible deal, too, with Jennings primed to play center field full time. He’s in left for now, laying claim to that position as well as the leadoff spot until the Upton situation is settled.

Inquiries, one source said, have come from teams in and out of contention. Among those with the most interest: Cleveland, Atlanta, San Francisco and Washington, with Toronto, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Philadelphia and others on the periphery.

Just as many calls are coming in for Shields, the team’s ace this season. Already the Yankees have asked and been rebuffed, according to ESPN. While Moore, Alex Cobb(notes) or Alex Torres(notes) could replace him in the rotation next season, Shields gives the Rays a much better chance of winning in 2012 and 2013, which makes the club far more reticent to deal him.

Should the Rays deal Shields, one source said, “You’ll know why.”

One reason is selling high. Rays GM Andrew Friedman owns among the best grasps on when to do so – see: Scott Kazmir(notes) deal – though his biggest July deal since taking over the team before the 2006 season was Aubrey Huff(notes) for Ben Zobrist(notes), no blockbuster. That may change this year. With Upton a comparative outfield gem and Shields a legitimate Cy Young candidate, Friedman could reap another windfall of talent like he did in last offseason’s Matt Garza(notes) trade.

Garza, outfielder Carl Crawford(notes), first baseman Carlos Pena, closer Rafael Soriano(notes), setup man Grant Balfour(notes) and others left the Rays this offseason, the sort of exodus that portended struggles. Star third baseman Evan Longoria(notes) typifies Tampa Bay’s offensive misery. Nonetheless, the Rays’ pitching and defense have been superb enough all year to keep them six games better than .500 on the cusp of the season’s 100-game mark.

Every other over-.500 team but the New York Mets are buyers right now. The Rays’ straddling that line is typical of a team with no room for budgetary error and plenty for restocking the cupboard.

“You’ve got to learn to deal with it,” starter David Price(notes) said. “It’s part of the game. It’s part of the Rays. And I don’t think it’s gonna change. It sucks. My time’s not here yet, so I try not to worry about it.”

Price hits arbitration this offseason, so his time is coming soon enough. Because of his contract situation, Shields seemed to be safe until teams started asking and the Rays started listening.

“I hope I don’t get traded,” he said.

“Yankees,” Price said.

Shields groaned. He’s not taking his 2.53 ERA to the Bronx. But if Cincinnati offered a package around catcher Devin Mesoraco(notes) or Detroit dangled starter Jacob Turner(notes)? The Rays would listen at least.

James Shields relaxes in the dugout after striking out 10 on June 19 against Florida. He says he does not want to be traded.
(US Presswire)

It’s an odd dynamic in Tampa, Shields admits: “If you’re winning, you’re probably not going to be trading some guys. You’re going to try to get some guys.” But it’s how life works with a stadium that creates no revenue streams and a fan base that refuses to support a team that for four years now has played among the most exciting baseball in the game.

“We’re every bit as good as the Yankees and Red Sox,” said DH Johnny Damon(notes), having seen the Rays go 4-6 against them in three recent series. “Our starting pitching and defense – definitely better. We just have to pick it up offensively.”

Which is why it would be nice to be buying instead of selling. But that doesn’t factor into the Rays’ economic realities. Acquisitions in July are expensive. The Rays run a Bentley plant of a farm system, but they shop for Hondas. They brought up Jennings to take over for the limp bat of Sam Fuld in left field, an upgrade. They could summon Matt Moore, considered by some the best pitching prospect in baseball, to play the “Price role,” like in 2008 when Price arrived late in the season and dominated in relief.

“The moment a manager starts talking about what you need, it denigrates the group you have, and I’m not gonna go there,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I work for the Tampa Bay Rays, and I work with Andrew and Stu and Matthew on a daily basis. We have to be on the same page, and I have to be invested in that philosophy. There can’t be a disconnect for success. It’s not even something I have to think about. I’m in.”

His job is the toughest. The Rays may be better than .500, capable of winning other divisions but trapped by geography, and if they do start making deals, he needs to motivate a group that played well all season only to see someone go. Upton and Shields, Damon said, “are two of the hearts of this team. If they were bad guys we might not miss them, but if they go, we will. We absolutely will.”

Crawford’s departure left Upton as the longest-standing Ray, with about 5½ years of service time.

“One more day than me,” Shields said. “He’s the most tenured guy.”

For now. Maybe not for long.

Part of the game. Part of life as a Ray.

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Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Jul 23, 2011