With the Red Sox trying to cut payroll and increase profits at the expense of the on-field product, it would make sense that the team might try to deal one of their most expensive players. David Price put up a very good season for the Red Sox in 2016 and helped the club win the World Series in 2018, but he made just 22 starts last year and began the offseason recovering from surgery on his wrist. When he did pitch this season, Price was effective, with a 3.62 FIP and 2.6 WAR despite just 107 innings, but the 34-year-old only threw 24 innings after the All-Star Break and his health is a huge question mark. Despite those concerns, Jeff Passan is reporting that teams are inquiring about the possibility of acquiring the left-hander.
The Boston Red Sox continue to pursue ways to shed salary, and multiple teams have targeted starter David Price, sources tell ESPN. He is owed $96 million over the next three years. Red Sox could either attach player with value or potentially pay down some of Price's remaining $.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 11, 2019
Given the present injury concerns, determining Price’s trade value is a bit difficult. Dan Szymborski provided the following ZiPS projections for Price over the next three seasons:
If we were to take those numbers at face value, and put a $9 million estimate on the value of a win on the market, we’d come up with a $42 million deficit between Price’s contract and his expected value; his health provides further complications. The lefty has never undergone Tommy John surgery, but he had a scare ahead of the 2017 season. He missed the first two months of the season due to elbow troubles, and then made just 11 starts before going on the disabled list with left elbow inflammation. At the time, Ken Rosenthal wrote a lengthy article describing the unique qualities of Price’s elbow, and compared him to Nolan Ryan:
According to Price, Andrews said the formation of bone on his ulnar collateral ligament was comparable to Ryan’s situation. Ryan, who said he never saw Andrews, was not surprised to hear the famed surgeon knew about the uniqueness of his elbow, reasoning that baseball doctors exchange information. Andrews declined to discuss specific cases but spoke generally about what he called the bony ossification of the UCL.
“Repeated stress to the ligament over its attachment below the joint causes a gradual pulling reaction that over time forms what we call a traction spur,” Andrews said. “It pulls on it and instead of pulling off, it has a healing response with calcification and eventually bone formation. The bone that forms protrudes up into the ligament. You can say that the actual ligament turns into bone as it progresses.”
Andrews said pitchers who heal in such fashion sometimes go their entire career without suffering major elbow injuries. Some, however, still require Tommy John surgery.
While Price’s elbow might be able to heal without surgery, it didn’t prevent tendinitis and a stint on the injured list last season. The surgery on Price’s wrist addressed a cyst, and he is expected to make a full recovery by spring training. One could argue that the ZiPS projections account for Price’s potential for injury, but we can also look at free agency and see that Cole Hamels just signed a one-year deal for $18 million. Hamels is two years older than Price, but he has similar projections. It’s possible Hamels could have gotten a two-year deal for less than $18 million per year, but he also finished the season healthy and struck out eight batters against zero walks in his final start of the season. If Price were a free agent today, it’s tough to see him getting anything other than a one-year deal, but even over two years, it’s hard to see his value as any more than $30 million.
If we assume Price’s value is around $30 million, it creates a $60 million gap between his value and his contract. Maybe saving $5 million to $10 million in payroll is enough to satisfy Boston, but presumably they are looking for greater savings by potentially moving their most expensive player. If that’s the case and the Red Sox are intent on lowering payroll, then Passan’s suggestion to attach a player of value makes some sense. The problem, then, is finding such a player.
Of their long-term deals, Chris Sale and J.D. Martinez likely wouldn’t add significant value above what they are owed. Xander Bogaerts‘ contract looks great for Boston, but moving him would set them back significantly in terms of talent. The same is true for Rafael Devers. Moving Mookie Betts just to pay down Price’s contract might save a lot of money, but trading the club’s best player without receiving significant talent back likely isn’t worth the savings if Boston wants to win in the next few years. That basically leaves Andrew Benintendi, Eduardo Rodriguez, and a whole lot of minor leaguers. The team could offer prospects along with Price, the same way the Angels just traded Will Wilson to the Giants with Zack Cozart’s $12 million remaining on his contract. The Red Sox have an interesting set of prospects, but the team would have to decimate their system to pay down Price’s contract using their young guys.
As for Rodriguez, he’s projected for three wins next season at a salary of about $10 million. If we assume a projected six wins over the next two seasons, and a salary of roughly $25 million total, we see Rodriguez providing roughly $29 million in value above his expected salary. That makes a fair trade something like Price, Rodriguez, and $30 million of Price’s contract. That trade would put Boston’s payroll roughly $10 million below the luxury tax level, though it would also give them one of the five worst rotations in the sport. Substituting Benintendi provides eight or nine wins over the next three years with around $25 million in total salary over the next three seasons. Benintendi’s value then sits in the $50 million range above his expected pay. Packaging Benintendi with Price and maybe $5 million per year is pretty close to a fair deal. Is that a deal that makes sense for the Red Sox? That depends on how important it is to Boston to get below the competitive balance tax threshold.
A Red Sox team without Price and Benintendi would be cheaper and not as good, but the team would still be a contender. They would be a mid-to-upper-80s win team with little shot at a division title behind the Yankees and Rays; they would have a shot at the Wild Card. Given Boston’s recent history of success, the support of the fans, and the revenues produced by ticket sales and their local cable channel ownership, giving up a year of contention in the final year of Mookie Betts’ team control all in the name of sustained success doesn’t find a logical home when no talent is returned in the deal. These are potential cost-cutting measures that have little to do with future on-field success.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.