In the aftermath of one of the craziest weeks in recent offseason history, it’s natural to wonder if the winter meetings will disappoint baseball fans.

After all, with Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Curtis Granderson and Joe Nathan off the board, five of the 15 best free agents, per Yahoo! Sports, are signed, sealed and delivered before the sport ascends on Disney World. 

Free agency may have accelerated a week too early for winter-meetings buzz, but the trade market has left plenty for baseball fans to look forward to in Orlando, Florida. When the baseball world arrives, expect buzz to generate around the biggest prize available on the trade market: Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher David Price

Already, the rumors have begun. According to Dayn Perry of CBS Sports, count the Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates among teams pursuing the 28-year-old lefty. Insiders such as Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal and CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman singled out the Kansas City Royals, Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers as possible suitors on MLB Network. 

As budgets are set, depth charts altered and executives prepped on how to best alter their franchises, Price’s name will emerge from the trade block and onto the headlines for three reasons: his status as one of the truly elite pitchers in baseball, below-market value of his contract and the philosophy of his current team.

Since arriving to the big leagues in 2008, and becoming a full-time starter in 2009, David Price has been among the best pitchers in baseball. Any team acquiring him wouldn’t just get an ace, they would receive the potential for back-to-back Cy Young-caliber campaigns before Price’s contract expired after the 2015 season.

Simply looking at Price’s career ERA (3.19), WHIP (1.15), win-loss record (71-39) or K/9 (8.1), paints the picture of a dominant starting pitcher. Yet his case as one of the top 15 arms in baseball is buoyed when comparing him to other top arms in the sport. Since 2009, using criteria of an ERA+ better than 120 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio better than 3.00, very few pitchers make the cut. 

As you probably imagined, Price is one of them. Some pitchers who didn’t meet the standards for consistent excellence over the last five seasons: Cole Hamels, Madison Bumgarner, Max Scherzer, Mat Latos and Jordan Zimmermann. When placing Price in the context of the 10 or 11 best pitchers in baseball, along with his 2012 American League Cy Young award, a true ace emerges on the trade market.

Due to the beauty of Major League Baseball’s arbitration system, Price will be compensated over the final two years of his original contract. According to Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors, Price is estimated to earn $13.1 million in arbitration for the 2014 season. If a contract extension isn’t reached before 2015, Price could cost his next team around $30 million for the next two years.

Yet, considering the $100 million price tag attached to free-agent pitcher Ervin Santana, $32 million deal afforded to Jason Vargas, two-year, $35 million pact San Francisco lavished on Tim Lincecum and uncertainty over Masahiro Tanaka’s posting from Japan, per ESPN, Price is virtually a steal, considering his ability, at $30 million over the next two years.

His deal is palatable to any suitor because it’s not just a one-year contract. If 2014 was set to double as Price’s contract year, his market would be much, much smaller. Outside of the few big-market teams that truly can afford his next contract, it would be foolish to give up significant prospects for one year.

However, two years of greatness is enough to convince general managers to part with the future. 

If any team understands the power of value and leverage, it’s the Tampa Bay Rays. Over the last three years, general manager Andrew Friedman has traded away two top-tier pitchers, Matt Garza and James Shields. Through no coincidence, both were two years away from free agency. This juncture represents the perfect time for a deal.

After giving Tampa Bay five outstanding seasons, Price is about to become much more expensive in arbitration and lose value by the day. If he’s on Tampa’s roster on Opening Day, it’s an upset.

Adding to Tampa’s ability to engage multiple teams in trade negotiations: the lack of desire for a particular return. As Richard Durrett of ESPN Dallas/Fort Worth described when profiling a possible match between the Rangers and Rays farm systems, Tampa excels this time of year due to its eagerness to take the best prospect available. Per Durrett‘s column:

Tampa Bay likely won’t be picky about any specific positions of need. They’ll want the best package they can get. If the Rangers put Jurickson Profar in the mix, that would put them on par with just about anything anybody else can offer.

When top prospects, not positions of need, are the cost, almost any team with a sound farm system can enter the sweepstakes. That strategy helped net the Rays two of their young building blocks, Wil Myers and Chris Archer, in the Shields and Garza trades, respectively. 

Free-agent prices are soaring, inferior pitchers are asking for contracts up to $100 million and the Rays are motivated to move on of the the best pitchers on the planet.

All that adds up to rumors and the potential for a blockbuster deal at the winter meetings.

What would you give up in a trade for David Price?

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