When the Los Angeles Dodgers made their blockbuster trade for Mookie Betts and David Price after the 2019 season, they were importing some major star power, to say the least. A perennial MVP candidate and a former Cy Young Award winner with many great innings under his belt, Betts and Price made what was already a super team even better going into 2020.
But as we know, 2020 was a strange season, and while Betts had a Betts-like season and the Dodgers took home their first World Series championship since 1988, Price chose to opt-out from playing the season.
As 2021 came around, David Price was ready to come back to baseball. The problem? The Dodgers starting rotation was full. Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Trevor Bauer, and Julio Urías laid claim to the first four spots while Price battled with Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin for the fifth spot. Ultimately, Price was the odd man out. Despite making $32 million this season, the former Cy Young winner was relegated to the bullpen. That’s an expensive swingman even if half his salary is covered by the Red Sox.
As any leader and good teammate would, Price was willing to embrace any role the Dodgers had for him. After all, it would be tough to expect him to go right back into a starting role even under ideal circumstances having sat out an entire season. And it’s not like the bullpen was completely foreign to Price, as he closed for the Tampa Bay Rays in some very important games during the organization's very first playoff run in 2008, including game 7 of the American League Championship series.
But here we are in August, and David Price has neither pitched meaningful bullpen innings nor become a permanent part of the rotation, even as a plethora of injuries and off-the-field issues have decimated the Dodgers pitching staff. To date, Price has started only seven games, and when he has been in the bullpen, it hasn’t been to pitch the most exciting innings. According to FanGraphs, only 5 1⁄3 of his 45 2⁄3 innings this season have been in high leverage situations.
As a whole this season, Price has pitched well. His 3.55 ERA/3.93 FIP are solid if unspectacular, and his last full season with the Red Sox in 2019 was a good one, pitching to a 4.28 ERA/3.62 FIP as well as setting a career-high in strikeout rate, so it’s not like he is washed by any means.
To be fair to the Dodgers, they have given Price his fair shot to start lately, as four of his last five appearances have been starts, and he is the probable starter for tonight’s game on the road against the Angels. Since his return to starting, he’s pitched to a more than respectable 3.50 ERA/4.22 FIP. With Kershaw and Gonsolin recently suffering setbacks on their respective roads back from the injured list, it seems like Price’s role in the rotation is set...
The Dodgers will have some interesting decisions to make once Kershaw and Gonsolin come off of the IL. We know that newly acquired Max Scherzer isn’t going anywhere, and while Danny Duffy may be headed to the pen, we have to assume that the freshly signed veteran Cole Hamels was brought in to make starts down the stretch, even though he is two years older than Price and pitched a total of 3 1⁄3 innings in 2020.
If all goes to plan, this means the Dodgers will carry all of Scherzer, Kershaw, Buehler, Price, Urias, Gonsolin, and Hamels as pitchers who can make starts for them either in September or going into the playoffs. Surely, it’s a good problem to have, even if having a $32 million reliever ends up being an embarrassment of riches.
For whatever reason, it seems the Dodgers are timid about locking Price into a rotation role, which is baffling. Price has had to build up arm strength since coming back from the bullpen—his highest single-game pitch count this season is 74—but as soon as he was about to take on a full workload, his spot in the order was skipped. Even if Price isn’t quite what he was from 2010 to 2016 when his 34.1 fWAR was fourth-best in all of baseball, he’s still been pretty good since then, and he’s been good recently. Whether Price becomes the odd man out again when everyone is healthy remains to be seen, but he may be more likely to return to the pen than anyone else on that list.
Price himself has expressed some reservations about his role, saying that pitching out of the bullpen has been ‘more mentally challenging to him.’ Even though he has maintained publicly that he is willing to do what’s best for the team, it’s also clear that he prefers to start. Price is under contract for another year after this one, so it will be interesting to see how his usage carries over to next year.
Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay and freelance contributor to FiveThirtyEight. He has also been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.