Can Rays afford to keep ace David Price in Tampa? 'I don't want to sell myself short'

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LOS ANGELES – The question put to David Price was about where it all leads, which was somewhat unfair, because he couldn't possibly know.

He is 27, has an American League Cy Young Award coming to him this weekend in New York City, is 61-31 over the past four seasons and just agreed to a salary of $10.1 million, the most his organization has paid a player for a single season.

While that tells the pleasant story of a young man who, like the team he plays for, became a small-market winner in a large-market world, he perhaps has initiated the unavoidable and unpleasant process of un-becoming a Tampa Bay Ray, simply by being among the best at what he does.

The Rays near a season in which one-quarter of their payroll will go to Price and third baseman Evan Longoria, and nearly one-third to Price, Longoria and shortstop Ben Zobrist. Under that burden, over time, an otherwise working business model begins to rattle.

This is not simply a Rays problem, of course. Plenty of teams in plenty of markets sell off players whose salaries would demolish their budgets. The difference is, the Rays win, and the Rays have a good time, and the Rays believe in each other, and the Rays engender loyalty. So hardly anybody ever wants to leave, and Price most assuredly does not want to leave.

He is three seasons from free agency. The arbitration process is already making him rich. A long-term contract extension certainly is possible, but perhaps would render the Rays less competitive, as management has pointed out. And so they would appear to have a decision to make, whether that's at the midsummer trading deadline or next winter or beyond, but sometime relatively soon, because Price won't be getting any cheaper.

[Related: How much did Rays' opening day payroll shrink?]

He sat this week under a tent just beyond the center-field fence at Occidental College's Anderson Field, where he shot a commercial for the video game "MLB 2K13" with Giancarlo Stanton and fellow pitchers Clayton Kershaw, Gio Gonzalez and C.J. Wilson. During a break for lunch, he was asked, you know, now what? How does this end up?

"Don't answer that, David," Wilson shot from nearby.

Price laughed. He's watched Carl Crawford go, Matt Garza go, others go and, just this winter, B.J. Upton and James Shields go. Maybe it's simply his turn. He doesn't know.

It's just this thing about the Rays: they make you want to play well and conduct yourself with dignity and overcome the ballpark and the empty seats and all the other issues they don't have to endure in New York or Boston. Play too well or, heaven forbid, become a superstar, and – unless you're Evan Longoria – you'll probably have to go because of it.

"Yeah, that's a tough one," Price said. "If we can find somewhere we are happy. That's it. I do enjoy being there. They all know that. I love everything about the Rays, from the training staff to the clubhouse guys, everything. It's a good locker room. It's cohesive. It's easy to be a part of. New guys come in, they fit right in, we make everybody feel welcome. That's what I feel like we do the best.

"But I don't want to sell myself short. I don't want to mess up for the future of other guys that could be in my position as well. That's something you have to look out for. We are a brotherhood as MLB players. We don't want to set the bar at some point, when somebody could get higher, and then it kind of sets the bar for the future. You don't want to do that, because that's not only affecting you, that affects everybody else. I want to be happy. I don't want to sell myself short. I guess 'appreciation' is the word I could use the most. I just want to feel appreciated."

[Related: David Price beat clock on fiscal cliff ]

He appears conflicted. He clearly wishes to stay and would forever. He also has watched teammates writhe under the weight of trade gossip, the daily patter of is-it-close, is-it-happening, what's-the-latest. Their moods suffered. Sometimes, their games did, too.

"Going through that at the time, maybe toward the All-Star break or at this time next year, it probably will be a pretty tough time," he said. "It's something I'm going to have to put it aside and let everything pan out for itself. Because I really have nothing to do with it. It's not my decision. I don't get to pick if I'm traded or where I'm traded to, stuff like that. It's out of my hands. So I'm going to try and continue to play this game the same way I have. Go out there and have fun, keep a smile on my face and try to be a good teammate."

Barring an extension, that's coming for him, too. Price's agent, Bo McKinnis, recently told reporters, "He wants to have the best contract in baseball, however that may be defined." Define it as you will, but "best" generally has lots of crooked numbers to the left of the decimal.

Maybe that targets CC Sabathia's $161 million. Or Cole Hamels' $144 million. Perhaps Zack Greinke's average annual value of $24.5 million. Maybe he'll wait to see what Kershaw gets. Does Jered Weaver's five-year, $85 million contract and what it represented – home, family, comfort, familiarity – come close enough to best?

"I want to be happy, that's the biggest thing," Price said. "I couldn't imagine signing some huge contract with a team I didn't really want to be with. That would take everything out of baseball for me, everything I've enjoyed doing the last 27 years of my life. And kind of making it almost to a point where you don't dread going to the field, but you don't look forward to as much. That's something I definitely don't want to be a part of. I love this game too much to have thoughts like that going through my head."

So, where does it all lead?

"I have never closed my eyes and envisioned myself in another uniform," Price said. "I've never put much thought to that, I really haven't. It's something I haven't done. I'm sure once the season gets underway and all these rumors start floating around, it's going to be tough. But that's what I have my family for. … I think it'll be all right."

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