Blue Jays Push Chips to Middle, Acquire David Price

Well, if you weren’t sure if the Blue Jays were really going for it or not, here’s your answer. A few days after acquiring Troy Tulowitzki, Toronto has shipped out pitching prospects Daniel Norris, Jairo Labourt, and Matt Boyd to rent the last few months of David Price’s 2015 season, giving them the #1 starter they’ve lacked all season, and a dramatic upgrade to a rotation that was mediocre at best, and extremely thin at the back-end. While Price can’t single-handedly solve all of their pitching issues, he’s still a dramatic upgrade that makes the team far more likely to advance deep into the playoffs than they were this morning.

Like with the Johnny Cueto deal, the price for a rental was pretty steep, costing the Jays a couple of guys who could pitch in the big leagues next year, plus have some long-term upside. In his pre-season Top 200, Kiley McDaniel put a 60 FV grade on Norris, ranking him the #17 overall prospect, two spots ahead of some guy named Noah Syndergaard. Norris struggled some this year, both in the majors and in Triple-A, but he’s the best prospect moved in any deadline trade so far.

And Labourt and Boyd aren’t just throw-ins. Labourt ranked 12th on the Blue Jays list, based on big velocity from a left-handed arm, and Boyd has dramatically improved his stock by seeing his stuff takes several steps forward this year. When asked about Boyd in a chat last month, Kiley said this:

Just talked to a scout that saw him a few weeks back. His velo jumped this year from 88-92 t94 to 91-94 t96 and the solid average off-speed is now above average, sometimes flashing better. He signed for 75K as a senior from Oregon State who had his velo bump as a senior, then again two years later. Basically unprecedented as far as I know. He’s at least a high 45 FV now, probably closer to 50 FV. When the scout was telling me what he saw, I made him repeat everything because it was so hard to believe.

A 55/60 FV guy in Norris, a 45/50 guy in Boyd, and a 45 guy in Labour puts this package even a step ahead of what the Royals paid to get Johnny Cueto, and significantly thins out the Blue Jays stockpile of young arms, already weakened by Monday’s deal for Tulowitzki. Unquestionably, the Jays have decided that their window to win is now, and they weren’t content to just see whether this group could run down a Wild Card spot without significant reinforcements.

Clearly, they’re going to need to do more than just reach the play-in game for this to be worth the cost. Price’s potential impact, though, makes this a deal worth doing, even if paying this cost for a rental is likely to be painful in the long-run.

The upgrade from Norris/Boyd to Price over the rest of the season will add roughly +1.5 WAR to the Blue Jays ledger, and given the dog fight they’re in for the AL Wild Card, the marginal value of those extra wins is remarkably high. For instance, here are our estimated Playoff Odds from right before the algorithm knew that the Jays had David Price, and right after.

Without Price 7.5 26.1 33.6 12.9 10.0 4.9 2.4
With Price 12.2 32.8 45.0 17.3 15.6 8.6 4.5

By adding Price, the Jays saw their playoff odds spike by 11 percentage points, and their odds of getting to and winning the World Series nearly doubled. But even just quoting that upgrade is probably underestimating the impact Price can have if the Blue Jays can get deep into October. A lot of the focus is going to be on giving them an ace to hand the ball to in the Wild Card game –and certainly, Price is a much better option for that winner-take-all contest than Mark Buehrle or R.A. Dickey — but I think he actually has a larger impact in the later rounds of the postseason, when an elite hurler can throw a disproportionate number of a team’s critical innings.

In the regular season last year, Madison Bumgarner threw 217 of the Giants 1,449 innings pitched, or 15% of their team total. Last October, the Giants played in 160 postseason innings; Madison Bumgarner pitched 53 of them, or 33% of their total. That was obviously an extreme situation, and no one can be expected to dominate October like Bumgarner did, but it was a very clear example of how teams can reallocate innings to their best arms in the postseason.

And that’s one of the nice things about renting an ace; you don’t necessarily have to be quite as concerned with limiting his workload. Certainly, the Blue Jays shouldn’t be reckless with Price’s career, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Blue Jays asked him to work on three days rest throughout the postseason, and he may very well end up throwing in excess of 25% of the team’s innings in the playoffs if they make a deep run.

This is where the ace-premium comes from, because while a #1 starter can still only start 33 games in the regular season, they effectively become as valuable as two good starters in the postseason. And the Blue Jays didn’t have anyone to fill that role, so the innings they’re going to be reallocating to Price come from the weakest parts of their organization, making this a larger upgrade than any other contender could have possibly made.

Now, having an ace is obviously no guarantee of success, and you can only carry that kind of workload if you’re actually pitching well. Clayton Kershaw was supposed to be that guy for the Dodgers last year, and you remember how that went. James Shields was the Royals rotation anchor last year, but he only threw 25 of their 141 innings (18%) because he kept giving up runs and had to be replaced with a more effective reliever. Just because the Jays have David Price doesn’t mean they can pencil him in for 30% of their team’s innings with an ERA under 2.00 across the board; baseball doesn’t always work that way.

But now they have the potential to have that performance, when that didn’t really exist before in a meaningful way. And if Price turns in a dominating postseason, with Buehrle and Dickey keeping things from getting out of hand in their starts, then the Blue Jays rotation starts to look pretty decent. And, of course, their offense remains the best in the league, so they only need to be decent at run prevention to be a serious threat in October.

Unquestionably, there’s a lot of risk here. As Jeff Sullivan noted last week, 21 teams have traded for aces since 1995, and not a single one went on to win the World Series. It’s easy to overstate the value of one dominant pitcher and forget that the rest of the team matters too, and no matter how good of a team you build up, the postseason tournament is still mostly decided by randomness. But while you can’t guarantee anything in advance, you can give yourself better odds, and David Price gives the Jays significantly better odds of making a run.

The cost was unquestionably high. Next year, when Price is likely pitching elsewhere while Norris and Boyd take the mound for the Tigers every few days, this deal might very well sting, especially if the Jays end up getting bounced early in the postseason. This deal puts a lot of pressure on the team to perform in October, and the history of those kinds of deals isn’t always kind.

But the potential payoff is enormous. The Blue Jays haven’t made the playoffs since 1993, the year Daniel Norris was born. They consistently run middle-of-the-pack attendance numbers now, after spending years putting record numbers of fans in the Skydome, and clearly, there’s an untapped market of Blue Jays fans who will return if the organization gives them reason to. A strong run in the postseason could bring in more future revenue than the team could have possibly hoped to have saved by keeping Norris, Boyd, and Labourt around for their cost-controlled years.

So yeah, the cost was significant. But the potential reward is as well, and given the rest of the team’s roster, this looks like the kind of scenario that justifies pushing your chips in and making a run. It might not work; in fact, history suggests it probably won’t work. But the return for hitting it big once can make up for going for it and failing multiple times.

The Jays are definitely going for it. And now, they have the kind of pitcher that makes going for it in October a heck of a lot easier.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Shirtless George Brett
7 years ago

I always thought that the Tulo trade wasnt really a “deadline deal”, just more of a regular deal that happened to take place at the deadline. This trade is the deadline move people were waiting for.

7 years ago

Anthopoulos said as much. He said this was something he was working on since the off-season. It just happened to click now and that lines up with the deadline in terms of the calendar. making that trade was entirely divorced from where the Jays are in the standings, what they’re doing regarding the playoffs, etc.