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Tampa Bay’s David Price is one of several players on the block as the trade deadline nears, but is likely the hottest commodity for teams in contention.

Big trades come at a price

Too much often given up in July to land pitching

Even before the season, the brightest, shiniest object in the trade deadline shop figured to be David Price, flamethrower, Cy Young winner, ace of virtually any rotation on which he lands. And yet a more instructive figure this July, as the non-waiver trade approaches, might be the 23-year-old converted catcher who normally mans right field behind Price.

Is there another Wil Myers out there?

Bear with us for a moment.

When the Chicago Cubs dealt veteran right-handers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland on July 4, nearly four full weeks before the non-waiver deadline, the pitching market simultaneously accelerated and tightened. Two of the prime targets – and perhaps the two most attainable – were gone, albeit at the cost of 20-year-old shortstop Addison Russell, listed by Baseball America’s midseason report as the fifth-best prospect. The Athletics, clearly, are going for it.

“They think they have a two-year window,” said one source with knowledge of Oakland’s thinking, “and they don’t think they can afford to waste it.”

By the end of the weekend, the New York Yankees had turned to Arizona’s Brandon McCarthy, not a bad Plan B for a rotation that is without C.C. Sabatthia, Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka, all injured.

So the focus turned precisely where it had been even before that flurry of activity: Directly to the left arm of Price, who entered the season with a decidedly uncertain future, one made murkier by the Rays’ unexpectedly slow start. Price makes $14 million this season, and if Tampa so chooses, it could hold onto him for next year, too, for around $20 million – what he’s expected to make in his final year of arbitration.

So a buyer of Price would be on the hook for, say, $26 million over the next season-and-a-half, and their rotation would be injected with a true stud. Price is fourth in the American League in strikeouts per nine innings (10.25), sixth in WHIP (1.09), the league leader in innings pitched and someone who appears to be hitting stride in the summer.

What contender wouldn’t want that? Given the Rays’ current status – 10 games under .500, ahead of only flailing Boston in the AL East – and Price’s intention of testing free agency following the 2015 season, why wouldn’t Tampa pursue a trade?

“It makes sense that they’d deal him – if they think they’re out of it,” one opposing general manager said. “But not many teams are sure they’re out of it.”

On June 10, the Rays lost a 1-0 decision to Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals, dropping to 18 games under .500, 15 games back in the American League East. Since then, they have gone 18-10, pulled within nine games of division-leading Baltimore, and looked more like the franchise that has averaged nearly 92 wins over the past six seasons. That they have done this without Myers (out since late May with a wrist injury) and lefty Matt Moore (who went 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA last season but is out for the year following Tommy John surgery) emphasizes their depth as an organization.

Since the arrival of the second wild-card playoff spot in 2012, reasons for midseason optimism abound in the majors, which makes it so much harder to discern buyers from sellers. On Wednesday morning, five teams in the AL sat in playoff position, with five more within 5 1/2 games. In the NL, five would have spots locked up if the season ended today, and four more are within five games. That’s 19 of 30 teams with not-so-unrealistic chances – and a few more, like Tampa, hoping to scrap within striking distance by the end of July. That would leave two more months to bridge the remaining gap.

So Price’s situation comes down to Tampa’s own evaluation of its outlook not only this year – when they were a preseason favorite to win the division – but also next. More importantly, though, is the cost. Which brings us back to Myers.

On Dec. 9, 2012, the Kansas City Royals – believing, erroneously as it turns out, they were on the brink of contending – shipped a package including Myers to Tampa Bay for then-reliever Wade Davis and veteran right-hander James Shields, who had gone 31-22 with a 3.15 ERA in a workhorse-like 477 innings over the previous two seasons for the Rays. The Royals were largely lampooned for the deal, because they parted with a major league-ready Myers for two years of Shields, who is eligible for free agency this winter.

The cost for stud starting pitchers in trade: a rookie of the year (Myers), an all-star shortstop (Jean Segura to Milwaukee from the Angels in the Zach Greinke trade), or the fifth-best prospect in the game (Russell). Whether Price stays in Tampa or ends up on a contender depends in large part on whether there’s another Wil Myers – or better – out there in return.

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