It seems like a foregone conclusion that David Price won’t be with the Tampa Bay Rays when spring training begins next year. In previous seasons, Tampa Bay has dealt Edwin Jackson and Matt Garza as the team entered costly years in the arbitration process. The Rays also traded James Shields to address team depth, despite his rather affordable contract, which means there’s plenty of history to suggest a move is in Price’s future.
Some of the statements put out there in recent weeks include concerns about Price’s declining velocity, about diminishing returns on value and whether the team can afford to keep the pitcher for even one more season. There’s no masking the fact Price threw with less velocity in 2013, even after returning from a stint on the disabled list while he recovered from a triceps strain. Price returned from the DL intent on becoming a more efficient pitcher, and he did so with aplomb. In fact, only Cliff Lee threw a higher percentage of strikes in the season’s final three months.
Price found gains in his new approach. Though he gave up a few percentage points in swings and misses, he put batters on the defensive and forced them to swing at his pitches, rather than the ones hitters preferred. Price increased his changeup use and generated more fly balls than he historically had in a season where the league-wide batting average on fly balls was 58 points lower than for grounders.
Some have compared Price’s timeline to those of Garza and Shields, but each of those situations was different from the one the Rays now face. Garza had three years of team control left when he was dealt to Chicago for Chris Archer, Sam Fuld and Hak-Ju Lee. The Rays felt comfortable trading Garza because they still had Shields, Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis — plus Alex Cobb and Matt Moore in the wings.
The organization reluctantly traded Shields — the owner of nearly every franchise pitching record — despite his affordable contract. In return Tampa Bay got Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi, players who strengthened future depth and could become the type of young cornerstones the team failed to develop in the past few seasons. The impact of the Shields trade was mitigated a bit more by the fact Price could anchor the staff, which would allow the young trio of Cobb, Hellickson and Moore to continue their growth. Starter Roberto Hernandez, too, bought time for Archer and Odorizzi to continue their own improvements.
Unfortunately, Hernandez was the only pitcher who made each of his scheduled starts. The other four spent time on the disabled list and forced pitchers such as Alex Colome and Enny Romero to make earlier-than-anticipated starts at the major-league level. After Price, the rotation currently has Cobb, Hellickson, Moore, Archer and Odorizzi. That group, while talented, is not the same level of talent that was present when the other two notable trades took place. Current Steamer projections have Price as a 4.1 WAR pitcher for the 2014 season, which is just 0.1 WAR less than Steamer projects for the Moore-Hellickson duo.
The Rays thought they were an 85- to 87-win team before the 2013 season, yet the team still made the postseason because of how the offense exceeded expectations. If the team thinks it’s in a similar position heading into 2014, trading a 4-plus-win pitcher seems counterproductive. Trading Price before the season would leave it up to Cobb and Moore to front the rotation and would leave Colome and Romero as immediate insurance plans. What that group has in upside, it lacks in experience. That rotation, too, has the feel of a rebuilding team, rather than a contending one.
Lastly, Price is likely to make upwards of $30 million in these next two seasons before he becomes a free agent. Tampa Bay currently has just more than $23 million of committed payroll for 2014, with the ever-looming threat of payroll cuts due to poor attendance. The team already has saved money in the offseason with Kelly Johnson, James Loney, Jeff Niemann, Ryan Roberts and Luke Scott coming off the books. Matt Swartz projects the Rays to add approximately $30 million in payroll through the arbitration process, which would put the team payroll $5 million less than this past season’s before any needed additions are made. Those needs include a first baseman, another catcher and bullpen help.
Price’s 2014 contract would still allow the team to retain him — while cutting the current payroll — but it would limit their options to fill other needs. Conversely, moving Price’s contract would allow the organization to be more than just a bargain-basement shopper on the free-agent market. A trade would help bridge a talent gap at the upper levels of the minor leagues that was created by a combination of disappointing returns from recent drafts and injuries to players such as Lee and Brandon Guyer. One last factor in this conversation is the new monies from the the new national TV deal. The new yearly revenues from that deal offers some wiggle room that was previously not there, as Wendy Thurm mentioned in her piece earlier this month.
Earlier this week, the Detroit Tigers seemingly cleared the way for Max Scherzer to stick around for a few more seasons by moving nearly $80 million off their books. That deal also eliminated an attractive trade possibility for other clubs. Some may think the Rays are in the unfortunate position of having to trade one of its most popular players because it doesn’t have the budget to retain him. But given the team’s current situation, the market and its budget, it could be the Rays that are in the enviable position of being able to sit tight, or let the market come to them. If that’s the case, perhaps Tampa Bay will find a way to pull off improbable trades in consecutive offseasons.