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With Price, Rays are still a serious contender in AL East

Hellickson's injury further quiets talk of Tampa Bay trading its ace before the season @HalBodley

Tampa Bay Rays fans are bemoaning the loss of pitcher Jeremy Hellickson, who'll miss the first six to eight weeks of the season after undergoing right elbow surgery.

Granted, opening 2014 with the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year Award winner on the shelf is discouraging, but his unexpected loss could turn out to be a blessing.

It makes trading David Price almost impossible. And with the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner firmly aboard, the Rays' chances of winning the tough AL East are even greater.

The Yankees spent millions this winter, the Red Sox are defending champs and still strong, but if I were to pick the AL East winner today, it would be Tampa Bay. No team made bigger improvements to cement itself as legitimate postseason contender than the Rays.

My guess is even before Hellickson revealed he had undergone arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies in his right elbow, the chances of president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman trading Price were getting slimmer by the day. Now, it's almost a certainty the lefty will be on board -- the entire season.

If the Rays are as good as I think they will be and are in the race as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches, it will be impossible to part with Price. That would not only weaken their chances for the stretch run, but it would also send the wrong message to their fans.

Hellickson has cemented that decision.

Throughout this offseason, the hot-button topic around Tampa Bay -- and Major League Baseball, for that matter -- has been if and when the Rays will trade Price. It's a sad state of baseball, but this small-market franchise historically has not been able to keep its homegrown talent.

It was a virtual certainty after the 2013 season that Price would be traded; he was even convinced himself. Price will not be a free agent until after the 2015 season, but entering this offseason, management decided his value might never be higher. He was "shopped," but no deal was strong enough for Friedman to pull the trigger.

Over the years, Friedman has had a magic touch, like last year when ace James Shields and Wade Davis were dealt to Kansas City for highly touted prospect Wil Myers. Myers, of course, helped the Rays to their AL Wild Card berth and won the league's Rookie of the Year Award.

No such deal seemed available for Price, but the reasoning was he'd open the season with Tampa Bay and at some point a contender desperately in need of pitching would overwhelm the Rays. With Hellickson out as many as eight weeks, that cannot happen now.

As the Rays worked out at Tropicana Field on Wednesday,'s Bill Chastain wrote "the mood of the group could be described as upbeat, particularly about the prospect of David Price returning to the team this season."

Pitcher Matt Moore told Chastain: "He's kind of been the man at the helm for us. And he's definitely the leader in the clubhouse. So, we're looking forward to getting behind him again."

Sooner or later, Price will leave, but not yet.

Rays owner Stu Sternberg, since buying the team in 2005, has created an organization that is the envy throughout Major League Baseball. Despite low revenues and poor attendance at Tropicana Field, the Rays have been contenders the last six years.

Joe Maddon's managerial wizardry is a key reason, but wise player decisions haven't gone unnoticed.

"We know, given the market for pitchers of David's caliber, we're never going to be able to keep him," Sternberg said. "But if we can't get the kind of pieces we need to have back for him, well, he's got two more years, which means we have two more bites at that World Series apple, and what's bad about that?"

During an interview with veteran Tampa Bay Times writer Marc Topkin, Sternberg rejected the phrase "all in," when referring to a payroll nearing $80 million and what appears to be an all-out push for a championship.

The Rays' only trip to the World Series was in 2008, when they lost to the Phillies in six games. Tampa Bay has been to the postseason four of the past six seasons.

"I don't believe in the phrase 'all in,'" Sternberg told Topkin. "I've heard it, and I don't care for it. We are feeding the beast. That usually comes with very successful teams who have to keep throwing money into an incinerator to keep things going.

"This is a beast that has been very successful for a number of years now. And we've come to the understanding that we're going to do everything in our power, if we have a chance to get to the World Series, to try to get to the World Series."

And during this offseason, improvements have been by some standards small, but enormous.

The Rays re-signed first baseman James Loney, traded for catcher Ryan Hanigan, who has led the Majors in caught-stealing percentage each of the past two year, and signed All-Star closer Grant Balfour to replace Fernando Rodney.

Balfour, who pitched for Tampa Bay previously (2007-10), had 38 saves and a 2.59 ERA for Oakland last season. He has a 28-17 record with 72 saves over 10 seasons.

This could be an extraordinary year for the Rays, and David Price is a huge reason why.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for

Tampa Bay Rays, Jeremy Hellickson, David Price