The Rays have developed a theme of trading pitchers before they hit free agency. They pulled it off with both Matt Garza and James Shields, and the industry expectation appears to be that they will continue that trend with former Cy Young award winner David Price. Both Matt Garza and James Shields are good MLB pitchers--and it can be argued that Shields is even a great pitcher--but they are not David Price. Well, that's at least what will be discussed--that trading for David Price is trading for a true franchise-changing pitcher. However, it's fair to discuss whether or not that is true and whether or not trading for Price at his assumed cost is a good idea.
What it means to be David Price
When the name David Price is discussed in many baseball circles, he is grouped with individuals such as Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Adam Wainwright, and other pitchers that are among the elite pitchers in the league. It could easily be argued that Price is actually not among this group and is not the elite starter many believe--or want--him to be. The reasons for this are scattered all over the place in Price's numbers. The easiest place to start is Price's fastball velocity:
If age is used on the X axis instead of years, this graph represents Price's age 24-27 seasons--typically a time where most players build up towards a peak and then plateau before regressing in later years. The rise from 2010 to 2012 is not surprising, but the drop in velocity from 2012 to 2013 is rather staggering and quite alarming. Earlier in the 2013 season, Price suffered a triceps injury that sidelined him for a good portion of the season. This is likely one of the big reasons his velocity dropped.
Now, the drop in velocity is a red flag, but it is not a death sentence. In fact, Price dominated in the 2nd half of 2013 through exceptional command of all of his pitches--particularly his fastball. In the 2nd half, Price walked just 1.10 batters per nine innings--3.1% of batters faced--while striking out north of 20% of the batters he faced. These numbers rest in stark contrast to Price's most recent seasons--where he struck out nearly 24% of batters while walking nearly 7% of batters.
In previous seasons, Price's FIP and xFIP have been nearly in agreement:
Price's results seem to have plateaued as he has entered his prime--which is a good sign, given that he really changed pitching styles in 2013. Here is a graph capturing Price's pitch usage and how it has changed. Each shade of color represents a different pitch, and the area of the region colored in with a particular color is the percentage that that pitch is being used:
The main story here is that Price's fastball usage has decreased significantly in just a span of four years. This may be due to his maturation as a pitcher--gaining more confidence in his breaking pitches and wanting to keep hitters off of his elite fastball--but it's possible that the injury forced--or rather helped--Price to realize a confidence in his secondary pitches. Regardless of the pitching style, the results half been relatively similar from a value standpoint. Even with the injury, Price has been in the mid-4's in Fangraphs WAR while his xFIP has rested between 3.12 and 3.32. If Price gains his velocity back while also using his new mix of pitches, it's possible that Price could emerge next year even better than before. However, it is most likely that Price's performance will either reflect his 2013 style or his previous seasons--which really depends on his ability to regain the velocity and dominance of his fastball.
What would be acquired
First and foremost, Price will be 28 years old and has no significant injury history--unless it is believed that a triceps strain is something that would plaque Price in a dissimilar fashion from other individuals. For some help, here is a graph produced by Bill Petti in his--and Jeff Zimmerman's--discussion of pitcher age curves. In the case of David Price, there is one particular quote from Bill's article that stands out:
Velocity is a young man’s game. Rather than a parabolic curve of some sort, pitchers generally lose velocity from the beginning. Through age 28, they appear to stay within .5 mph of their peak velocity; but starting at age 29 they have lost about 1 mph with the loss accelerating every year thereafter.
Not much has to be done to explain how this is some pretty devastating news for fans of David Price. However, there is a silver lining: Price learned--through design or by being forced to--how to pitch effectively with a lower fastball velocity and more of his secondary pitches. Price is a smart individual--drafted out of Vanderbilt, after all--so it's possible that he figured out how to pitch like a seasoned veteran before he has come close to exiting his prime, which figures to be a huge advantage in Price's favor.
What this means is likely an easier transition for Price from his early prime into his late and post-prime years. While velocity isn't necessarily a causal factor in injury, it is easy to believe that throwing at slower velocities--given no change in mechanics--lessens strain on muscles, tendons, and ligaments involved in pitching. That means fewer theoretical injuries for Price going forward.
With the fact that Price has experienced pitching through lower velocities with a deeper arsenal of pitches already, a more optimistic aging curve can be predicted--especially if it holds true that Price could be less injury prone with his new pitching style. According to Bill's graph linked earlier in this article, FIP remains relatively stable between the ages of 28 and 30. If that holds true, then Price should be able to put up fWAR totals just under five through his age 30 season. After that, there is a steady and steep decline through the mid 30's until numbers begin to plateau late. While remaining cautiously optimistic, here is a graph of what is projected from Price:
As was mentioned, the expected decline is steep and steady, and a lot of the reason for that is due to the high risk for injuries that older pitchers carry with them. If Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia--both pitchers that carried great reputations as workhorses--can be slowed by injuries in a significant fashion, then it isn't ridiculous to assume that the same could happen to Price. If Price were to meet this level of projection, he would be worth exactly 30 wins in value--or 3.33 fWAR per year over the next nine years.
Needless to say, that's a lot of value in not a lot of time.
Here's the catch
Acquiring 30 wins over nine years--including nearly 15 over the next three--sure sounds nice. However, there is one more catch with David Price: he's eligible for arbitration each of the next two years and is a free agent after the 2015 season. Oh yeah, and he already made $10.1 million in a contract with the Rays this season. After a dominant second half and knowing the escalators involved in each sequential arbitration year, it stands to reason that Price will be paid a significant increase in salary for 2014--and an even bigger one for 2015 should he match his projections.
What that pay increase is depends on the savvy of the team that ends up trading for him. While that is unknown, a comparable model might be the artist known as Tim Lincecum. Lincecum received a 2 year, $40 million deal from the Giants that covered his last two eligible years of arbitration. He did so after having recently won back-to-back Cy Young awards, and those two years were his age 28 and 29 seasons. Ironically, many of these variables match David Price--and both pitchers had similar age 27 seasons.
The kicker here is that both players ran into issues shortly after dominant Cy Young campaigns--and Lincecum even was faced with pitching with decreased fastball velocity. Now, all of this comparison to Lincecum may have readers terrified, but there is a key difference: Price has exceptional command of his pitches, whereas Lincecum did not have the same feel for his pitches going into his late 20's--which ultimately led to his demise.
If that contract is used as a baseline--especially given recent contracts handed out to baseball's best pitchers and Price's personal projections--it would not be out of the realm of possibility to see 2/45 or 2/50 for Price.
The other thing
The last thing to deal with here is that obviously this transaction would be a trade, so the cost of signing Price would have to be paired with giving up elite prospects. The Rays did a lot to establish the market for this deal last year when they acquired Wil Myers and Jake Ordorizzi for James Shields--with other side pieces thrown in. An easy way to establish Price's value is to compare his characteristics with Shields'. Shields was three years older than Price is now and one year closer to free agency, and the two actually shared rather similar trends in value during the years leading up to their pending trades--the X axis is in years prior to pending trade:
Outside of Shields' random drop in the second year of this four-year window, the two players are rather similar--with Price being slightly more valuable. With Price also being younger and having more control, he carries more value heading into a potential trade. There is a kicker here in that teams may not look at the Shields trade last year as a baseline. After all, many in the industry voiced negative opinions regarding the Royals' execution of the trade--and a sense of desperation was cited as a reason why the Royals gave up as much as they did.
That all being said, a deal for Price probably has the same kind of mold as the James Shields trade did. An elite prospect paired with another top-100 caliber prospect with side pieces slotted in to fill the deal. Now, a prospect on Wil Myers' level is something special--a player that produced a pro-rated 4.42 fWAR in his rookie year (2.4 in 88 games).
This really begs the question of whether or not said prospect might actually be more valuable than Price in the near future. Myers--for example--could produce north of 20 wins in value over the next five years with relative ease. At the same time, Price is projected for 21.7 fWAR and will be making significantly more money--and is also coming off of an injury. However, not every elite prospect develops as quickly as Wil Myers, Bryce Harper, or Mike Trout. A more reasonable projection might be something closer to 15 wins over that span for a top prospect that develops well.
Who has what it takes to get him?
At this point it is hard to justify trading for David Price given what he will likely command in salary and what his projections are versus the kind of prospect he will command. That being said, it appears very likely that someone is going to go out and trade for him anyway--likely because they view him either as a centerpiece or as the finishing piece on a roster--or because they are confident in his projections and ability to gain back fastball velocity. Here are a few teams that will be discussed with a dark horse thrown in:
At this point, the phrases "trade speculation" and "Texas Rangers" are synonymous. The Rangers have a high quality roster with a higher quality farm system. When combined with a well-managed payroll it appears the Rangers have the resources to deal for Price. The team has been very adamant about not trading Jurickson Profar, but he is the kind of centerpiece the Rays will be looking for. However, the Rangers may decide to move Ian Kinsler off of second base and give Profar regular playing time. If they did this, they could still manage a deal--they would just not be as likely to offer a better package than another team could.
The Cubs are an interesting team in the Price sweepstakes, simply because they are in limbo with their current MLB roster. Rumors have swirled about trading or extending Jeff Samardzija, so it's feasible that the Cubs could handle things in several different ways. The most interesting of these scenarios would be the use of Jeff Samardzija as a centerpiece in the deal--thus making it so the club did not have to surrender one of its "big four" position player prospects--Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, and Albert Almora. If the team decides to retain Samardzija, they could develop a deal centering around one of the aforementioned big four prospects.
The Cardinals are already scary enough, and they would be a sheer monstrosity of an opponent with Price. With as much as the club loves young arms like Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, and Carlos Martinez it would seem that the club could turn one of these arms into Price. At this point it is hard to say what exactly the Cardinals would be looking to trade for outside of a shortstop--as they appear to be solid at most positions on the diamond. However, it is true that a team can never have enough pitching--and with Westbrook possibly out of the picture next year and Jaime Garcia being an unknown, the Cardinals might make the jump.
Dark horses could include the Cincinnati Reds, Boston Red Sox, and Los Angeles Dodgers--though those teams are likely going to be unwilling or unable to give up the prospects necessary to get Price--with the Reds likely having to surrender Robert Stephenson and the Red Sox likely having to surrender Xander Bogaerts.
Super Dark Horse
It's not going to necessarily be a popular opinion, but the Pittsburgh Pirates could possibly jump in on this action as well. If reports were true that they were willing to trade for Giancarlo Stanton, then perhaps they need to be considered as a player for Price. They have the prospects and have used payroll efficiency methods to make it so they could possibly justify the high cost of Price's next two seasons.
David Price is a really good pitcher that is likely just a step below the game's elite. At the same time, he's relatively young and potentially available on the trade market--an opportunity that does not often present itself. After James Shields was traded for Wil Myers and more, it stands to reason that the Rays would want more for David Price in a deal. The prospect cost for Price will be high, and he is likely going to make quite a bit of money over the two years a trading team would have to control him. Given recent history, it may be wise for a team to hold off on David Price and look for other opportunities to improve their ball club. Right now, the forecast is optimistic in the Rays' favor.
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Ken Woolums is the Transactions Editor at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @Wooly9109