Believe it or not, Price headed to minors

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- What's a guy have to do to make a team these days, anyhow?

Get himself ranked as the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball? Nope. Apparently, that won't do it.

Get himself named USA Today's 2008 Minor League Player of the Year? Nope. That won't, either.

Hmmm, get picked to win the rookie of the year award by every magazine in America except Better Homes and Gardens? Uh, 'fraid not.

OK, how about marching in to save the game in October that launched his team into the first World Series in franchise history? Sorry. Not quite enough.

All right, well, how 'bout doing all that stuff and racking up a 1.08 spring ERA? Nah, unbelievably, that's probably not going to get it done, either.

Not if the guy we're talking about is David Price, anyway. And not if the team he's trying to make is the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays haven't quite yet said that their favorite 23-year-old left-handed phenom is about to be handed a plane ticket to Durham, the Rays' Triple-A affiliate. Not officially, anyway.

But every indication is that that's what's about to happen, probably any day now. And if that isn't a sign that the Rays obviously have way too much talent and way too much pitching, I don't know what is.

You have to wonder how many teams in baseball would have the courage to make a decision like this.

You wonder how many teams could sell their fans -- and, maybe more important, their players -- on the idea that sending out arguably the most dominating pitcher on their roster is actually a sensible baseball move, not some kind of sinister ploy to save money.

But it tells you how far this franchise has come in the last year that you hear almost no second-guessing on this front in this team's camp. From anybody.

"These guys are extremely smart in our front office," first baseman Carlos Pena said. "So I respect that decision. I know there's some very good reason behind it that will serve this team and, more importantly, serve David Price's future."

Oh, the Rays have their reasons, all right. Very, very intelligently thought-out reasons. And we should point out, at the top, that they have no reason -- at least in the short term -- to avoid starting Price's arbitration clock. He's already signed through 2012.

So if this is about baseball, it's tough to argue with the concept of conserving Price's innings load until they really need him. And when they say they want him to finish off his development into the top-of-the-rotation behemoth everyone expects him to be, well, how can you blame them?

But let's just say that if David Price doesn't make this club out of spring training, the rest of the AL East sure won't be sending him any wish-you-were-here cards.

Here, for instance, is how one AL East executive reacted to the possibility that Price probably won't make this team:

"I certainly hope not," he laughed. "I hope they send him down for a nice full year of seasoning -- or two."

The Rays don't happen to be listening to those hopes, of course. In fact, they obviously aren't listening to any of us.

"I don't think there's anybody here that wouldn't want to see him here from day one," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "But sometimes, if that's how it works out, you just have to make decisions that are right -- despite what everyone else is telling you."

What everyone else is telling them, obviously, is that David Price is ready to be a star -- like in the next 15 minutes. Just about every baseball-preview magazine on the rack predicts he'll be the AL rookie of the year. ESPN fantasy guru Matthew Berry recommends that you take him in your fantasy draft ahead of Justin Verlander, Carlos Zambrano and A.J. Burnett. And all those assessments make total sense -- even to the Rays.

Andrew Friedman It's a fine line because we're so reliant on our young players, and we always will be. So development has to be the key. We can't do something that provides a slight benefit in '09 if it's going to be detrimental to 2010, '11 and '12. We can't run away from that. We have to maintain that mindset, or we will not be able to sustain success.

-- Rays GM Andrew Friedman

"Believe me, we feel the same way about him," manager Joe Maddon said. "We think he's special beyond special."

There aren't many teams in this sport that would feel that way and still send a guy this talented winging off to Durham, N.C. There are even fewer teams that could pull that off without a riot by their fan base -- not after what that fan base witnessed in October, when Price dropped out of the heavens to become the Rays' secret postseason weapon.

After only two dozen trips to the mound in his entire professional life, this guy faced 24 hitters in October -- and allowed hits to two of them. He picked Game 7 of the ALCS to collect the first save of his career. He won another ALCS game in relief. And he was the fellow the Rays chose to finish the only World Series game they won.

About 99 percent of all living Americans looked at that performance and thought: "Ace." But the team David Price pitches for looked at it and saw a still-unfinished product who just happens to have talent oozing out of every pore and follicle.

"Obviously," Hickey said, "he's very talented. And he brought all the weapons he needed to the table. But a lot of that was also a little bit of unfamiliarity the hitters had with him. He's got a little bit of funk in that delivery, which is helpful. And guys just not knowing what to expect.

"But let's just say he's a starting pitcher [this year], and he faces New York three, four or five times, or Baltimore three, four or five times, or anybody in our division. Obviously, you have to continue to get better. You have to adjust. And that's the kind of stuff we're talking about. We're not talking about any great deficiencies here."

Yeah, no kidding. What they're talking about, in essence, is just improving Price's command so he "becomes a little more pitch-efficient," Hickey said. And they're talking about giving him time to develop his changeup, even though Hickey says he already has made "amazing" progress on that pitch just since last season.

But probably the biggest reason Price is going to have to spend a few weeks in Durham is that always-controversial issue -- innings.

He worked 129 1/3 of those innings last season, counting the postseason. And the Rays want to limit their young pitchers to only about a 20 percent increase from year to year. So if we're calculating correctly, that means they would like him to top out at about 155 innings or so this year.

"So when would you rather have those innings?" Maddon asked. "In April or in October?"

Seems like an easy answer, but, wait. Isn't that a trick question? Don't they also have to get to October?

Of course they do. So wouldn't they be a better team, a team with a better shot to get there, if David Price were around all season?

Price clearly thinks so. After pitching four shutout innings against the Yankees on Sunday, he told the postgame media throng, "If I'm getting innings, I would love to get them in the big leagues. If I'm going to work on stuff, I'd love to work on it up there and get real reactions to hitters."

And why wouldn't he? If they wanted to, the Rays certainly could keep him in the big leagues and limit his innings by employing The Joba Chamberlain Plan -- starting Price out in the bullpen in the big leagues and transitioning him into the rotation.

But the Rays don't seem to be big fans of that approach. They would rather put Price on some version of the Evan Longoria Plan -- protect his work load in the minor leagues, let him get into a rhythm and then airlift him into scenic Tampa Bay. But the bottom line is, however they play this, they're still talking only "when" here, not "if."

"You know, there's something to be said for, when you do bring a really good young player like that up, to wait just a bit," Maddon said. "There's probably just a little bit less pressure attached in some ways. Expectations may be lowered a bit. If you canonize somebody coming out of spring training, all of a sudden the environment may be different surrounding that player."

Well, we wish them luck on reducing the expectations for a guy who was the first player picked in the 2007 draft, not to mention a guy who has already become a certifiable October hero. But you never know. It just might work. Pretty much everything else this Rays administration has tried sure has.

"It's a fine line," GM Andrew Friedman said, "because we're so reliant on our young players, and we always will be. So development has to be the key. We can't do something that provides a slight benefit in '09 if it's going to be detrimental to 2010, '11 and '12. We can't run away from that. We have to maintain that mindset, or we will not be able to sustain success."

So, for a team like this, it's not a small factor that, of the three pitchers in the running for this fifth-starter's job, Price is the only one with options left -- and the only one the Rays wouldn't be comfortable with ping-ponging between the rotation and the bullpen.

The most likely winner of this derby, Jason Hammel, was having an excellent spring (3.94 ERA, 12-to-3 strikeout-walk ratio) until an ugly outing Monday (five walks, four runs in four innings). Hammel himself called it "unacceptable." But Hammel, says Hickey, still has "four legitimate, quality, major league pitches. … He can be as good as anybody we have. He really can."

Or the Rays could possibly turn to the long-intriguing 6-foot-9, 260-pound Jeff Niemann, who was having a sensational spring (one run in 11 innings) until he coughed up nine runs in one game Friday. That outing aside, Niemann seems to have made big strides in commanding his heavy, 97 mph two-seamer. And when he does, Hickey says, "that creates an almost impossible angle for the hitters to square up."

So if Price doesn't start the year in this rotation, it's not as if they'll be forced to throw some 47-year-old slopballer from the Mexican League out there.

"I bet there are a number of teams," Hickey said, "that wouldn't mind having these three guys compete for their third spot in the rotation."

But this just in: No matter how this shakes out, somebody had better warn Hammel and Niemann they're only keeping that slot warm until their team looks at David Price and decides, "It's time." And the Rays aren't ready to tip their hand on when that is.

"We're all about impatience in our country anymore," Maddon said. "But this organization is about patience."

So David Price can ease into this season -- for now. But that figures to be just a brief intermission in his journey toward stardom, unless everyone who has ever seen him is hallucinating.

"I still think the sky's the limit," Carlos Pena said. "And maybe not even the sky. It might be the Milky Way."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.