Price still a Ray, but for how much longer?

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- David Price is back. Or is he?

His locker is right where he left it, in the middle of the Tampa Bay Rays' clubhouse. His cap still has a T and a B on it. His uniform still says, “Rays.” His trusty dog, Astro, is still basking in the glow of his world-famous 2013 canine bobblehead giveaway.

So clearly, a miracle has occurred here. David Price is back. He isn't getting traded after all. Or is he?

“I won’t believe David Price isn’t getting traded until Opening Day,” said one dubious executive of another club just the other day. “That’s the business model of that team, is trading those types of players. They've built their success on getting Chris Archer for Matt Garza, on getting Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi for James Shields. That’s what they do.”

Well, it’s what the Rays have done anyway. But they didn’t do it this winter, although it wasn't for lack of trying.

Price couldn’t have been more available if the Rays had posted him on eBay. But this time, unlike what happened in the 2010-11 offseason, when they traded Garza, and 2012-13, when they dealt away Shields, the planets didn't line up the way they’d figured, or the way any of us had figured.

Was there interest in Price? Uh, is the sea blue? Is the sand white? Are piƱa coladas wet? What do you think? The hang-up wasn't lack of interest, in a 28-year-old former Cy Young Award winner. The hang-up was a combination of massive price tag, lack of desperation to pay it on the other end and timing that never quite worked.

So when the transaction rubble had settled this winter, Masahiro Tanaka was a Yankee, A.J. Burnett was a Phillie, Bronson Arroyo was a Diamondback and Bartolo Colon was a Met. But the trade market for prominent starting pitchers never went anywhere all winter, beyond the Doug Fister deal. So David Price, much to even his own shock, was right back where he started -- in Tampa Bay.

“I felt like this offseason, everything just kind of fell in my corner, for me to stay with the Rays,” Price said Saturday, on the first day of his seventh spring training as a Ray. “With Tanaka not being able to sign until the 24th [of January] and stuff like that, it seemed like teams waited for that market to fall. You know, if he had signed during the winter meetings or something, it might have been a little bit different. That would have given teams a lot more time to figure out what they wanted to do.

“So I thought that after Tanaka signed, that next seven or eight days were pretty big. After that, I got to breathe a little bit. And today is a big day as well. Once I got to spring training, I felt like I would kind of be here.”

Well, it seems like an excellent assumption. But let’s just say not everyone is ready to make it.

“You’re talking about six weeks of guys getting hurt all over baseball and some teams realizing they’re not as good as they thought they were,” said the same exec quoted earlier. “So I know that no one there wants to say it, but this has become that team’s chief way of acquiring talent. Their drafts haven’t been as good lately. Their farm system isn't what it used to be. So they need that constant influx. …

“And remember, when we went into this offseason, there wasn’t even a debate. It was a no-brainer. He was getting dealt. So I’ll believe it when I see it.”

OK, we can understand the logic in that theory from afar. The time for the Rays to get max value for their ace would seem to be now, when he’s still two years from free agency. And once they get into the season, they’re so deep and talented, they’re not going to trade him in July if they start out, say, 60-20.

So if you just want to view this situation coldly and clinically, maybe a Price deal still makes sense. But there’s another side to this equation that the astute people who run this team are not crazy enough to ignore:

If they trade Price between now and Opening Day, it would devastate the euphoric vibe of a team that practically launched into Mardi Gras when Price walked back into its clubhouse this spring.

“To trade me now would kind of pour salt into the wounds, not only for myself but for all the guys in this clubhouse and for our fan base,” Price said. “Everybody assumes that I’m going to be here this year. So obviously, if I were to get traded in the next month, month and a half, that would leave a bad taste in quite a few people's mouths.”

Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ executive vice president of baseball operations, wouldn't comment Saturday on whether he had offered Price any assurances this spring that it was safe to ignore all trade rumors for the next six weeks. But when Friedman was asked whether he feels it’s important to reassure a player like this about where he stands, Friedman answered this way:

“We have a very, very open dialogue, and I think David has a good sense of the organization’s approach to life in general,” Friedman said. “And we have a good feel for him. And I think that’s something we feel it’s important to do in this organization, [to] have a very frank, open line of communication. …

“I respect that there’s a human element with guys who are speculated about in trades, the life impact of that, and I don’t minimize that,” Friedman went on. “Obviously, this is not about David, specifically. Just generally speaking, guys want to ask me questions. And I want to do my best to answer them.”

So while Price can’t be sure how his front office is thinking, or what overwhelming trade offer some team might decide to make for him on March 18, he sure doesn't talk like a man who thinks he’s still in danger of calling Allied Van Lines.

Asked the other day about whether he thought taking his pre-camp physical was a sign he was sticking around, he quipped: “If I give blood, I’m not getting traded to somebody that doesn't have my blood yet, because I’m not doing it twice. That is not happening.”

And while he said Saturday this doesn't quite feel like a reincarnation, since he never actually went anywhere, he realizes that, among all players in the sport who never went anywhere, it’s an odd place he finds himself nonetheless.

“It’s like people keep welcoming me back, and I say, 'It’s great to be back,'" he laughed. “But then they say, 'You were never actually gone.’ And I'm like, `You’re right.'"

Still, when asked what he thought the chances were last fall, on a scale of 1-to-100, that he’d be standing in this clubhouse this spring, Price replied: “Probably a 5, or below. I really didn't think I’d be back with this organization.”

So now that he is, he said, “It’s a big sigh of relief for me. My comfort level here is great. This is my seventh year. I know all the parking-lot attendants, all the security guards. I know their kids. I know their wives. My dad has everybody who works at the Trop's cell phone [numbers] in his speed dial. So it’s just very easy. To be in a situation like this, it’s kind of what you dream about as a kid.”

Of course, when you dream about these situations as a kid, you envision finding yourself in heaven and then sticking around forever and ever. In Price’s case, on the other hand, he understands his return trip to nirvana isn't a forever kind of deal.

Those trade rumors may be in his rearview mirror now. But just wait seven or eight months. They’ll be back.

At this point, no one even pretends that the Rays can afford to give him the Kershaw-esque mega-contract it would take to keep him around long-term. So at some point, he’ll be moving on. Maybe next winter. Maybe the winter after that. But sometime. That’s just life in Tampa Bay.

“So I completely get that,” he said. “I understand that. … That’s just the way the organization operates. You really can’t be mad about it. The more time you spend in Major League Baseball, the more you understand it’s a business.”

And business is business. Just not now.

Somehow, against all odds, David Price is still a Ray -- and likely to remain a Ray for all of 2014. So as long as he’s sticking around, he said, he’d like to do something just as crazy as the turn of events that have spun his world right back to this same place:

“What I want to do now,” he said, “is win a World Series.”

And when you look at how good his team is with him still a part of it, that’s one wish that might not be out of the question.