PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – David Price's(notes) finger hurt. He'd accidentally smashed it in his garage door Saturday morning and the fingernail was black and blue. Ouch. Maybe the pain was a blessing, though, because it temporarily helped him forget what hurt worse.
His ego. His pride. His competitive spirit. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon had announced the starting rotation a day earlier, and Price was No. 4. That certainly isn't the way he thinks of himself. His fondest memories of last season, his first as a big league starter, were two matchups against CC Sabathia(notes) and two against Roy Halladay(notes), among the top pitchers in baseball.
Price has no quarrel with Maddon's decision to tab Jamie Shields as the opening-day starter. Or that Matt Garza(notes) is No. 2. He even understands why Jeff Niemann(notes) is No. 3. Price just doesn't like being No. 4.
"Obviously I want to be in that No. 1 spot at some point," he said. "I don't play baseball to be second to anybody. That's just my mindset. It's a little bit of motivation for me, and that's good."
He doesn't feel entitled. He knows front-of-the-rotation status must be earned. It's the way the Rays have groomed him since selecting him with the first pick of the 2007 draft. Price has been handed nothing. Sure, he bolted up the ladder in his first season, climbing three minor league levels and making his major league debut Sept. 14, 2008. Sure, Maddon made him the Rays closer during their magical postseason run. But he deserved every bit of it.
He was 12-1 in the minors, displayed moments of dominance after his September call-up and allowed only one run in five postseason appearances. The Rays wouldn't have reached the World Series without Price's unruffled door-slamming in Games 2 and 7 of the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox.
Speaking of door-slamming, the injury to his finger isn't serious, unlike his approach to spring training. Price is on a crusade to improve, and for reasons beyond being penciled in as fourth in the rotation. He's been manipulated by the Rays in the name of his own best interests and was ignored by Rookie of the Year voters, an award that had been all but engraved for him before the season.
Price didn't make a major league appearance until May 25 because the Rays started him in Triple-A last season. As such, he cannot become a free agent until after the 2014 season, a Rays official said. Had he spent the entire season with the Rays, he'd be eligible for free agency after the 2013 season.
Rays brass made a compelling case last spring that starting Price in Durham, N.C., was best for his development. They wanted to limit the number of innings he pitched. They wanted him to hone his command and cut down on walks. They wanted him to develop his changeup and curveball, so he'd have four quality pitches in his arsenal.
Nevertheless, Price paid. And he wasn't pleased. He felt his 1.08 ERA in the spring spoke for itself. He never said so publicly, but he and his agent knew full well that economics were a factor in the demotion. Price, an uncommonly intelligent player who spent three years at Vanderbilt University, didn't blame the Rays. He understood that the front office was focused on the long-term interest of the franchise.
"I just used it as motivation, like everything else," he said.
Maddon said the team's philosophy has changed in recent years. "We dropped the entitlement and scholarship program," he said, wryly. "We make sure people earn the right to be here."
Once Price was promoted, his first start cemented the notion that he was a work in progress. The Rays handed him a 10-0 lead against the Cleveland Indians but Price's pitch count hit 100 in the fourth inning and he was pulled five outs short of becoming eligible for his first regular-season victory. Worse, the Rays eventually lost, 11-10.
"These big league hitters, if they see you struggling to throw strikes, they aren't going to help you out," he said.
Five days later he notched his first win, going 5 2/3 innings and striking out 11 against the Minnesota Twins. Command issues continued, however, and he walked at least five in four of his first seven starts. He turned it around in mid-July and his ERA over his last 12 starts was 3.58.
Not coincidentally in Price's mind, he pitched best against Sabathia and Halladay, going 3-1 and allowing only 13 hits and four earned runs in 25 1/3 innings over four starts. He carries himself like a No. 1 starter. He's been groomed to be a No. 1 starter. So facing No. 1 starters is exactly what Price wants to do.
"Throwing well against those guys, it makes you feel good," he said.
Making a jump to the top of the rotation is feasible. Shields took a step back last season, his ERA spiking more than a half-point to 4.14. Garza has electric stuff but has yet to prove he's better than a .500 pitcher. Niemann was a pleasant surprise, going 13-6 and finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.
Price needs to improve the command of his fastball, which will in turn improve his pitch-count efficiency, which in turn will enable him to utilize his entire four-pitch arsenal. Price's slider is considered his best pitch, and he will spend the spring honing his curveball and changeup.
It would make a huge difference to the Rays' fortunes if Price elevated his game to the level of a Sabathia or Halladay. Their revenue stream is barely a trickle, so they can't buy a No. 1 starter on the free-agent market. Team president Stuart Sternberg has dourly predicted an enormous cut next season from the current $70 million payroll.
Maybe the Rays are posturing in their aggressive push for a new stadium. Or perhaps they are facing reality. Attendance projections are dismal. A payroll cut to $40 million is possible if the Rays replace four impending free agents – offensive stalwarts Carl Crawford(notes) and Carlos Pena(notes), closer Rafael Soriano(notes) and designated hitter Pat Burrell(notes) – with pre-arbitration players. Promising prospects Desmond Jennings(notes), Reid Brignac(notes), Sean Rodriguez(notes) and Jeremy Hellickson(notes) make it a possibility.
But a return to the 97 victories of 2008 and contending in the AL East with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will be possible only if current Rays improve their performance.
David Price is one of those who can.