What We Know About David Price On the Red Sox

So David Price and the Red Sox have agreed to a seven-year deal worth $217 million, pending a physical that Price will presumably clear with some ease. As part of the terms, Price can opt out after year three, and sometimes pitchers do that, and sometimes they don’t. We’re in a weird place, where this was entirely predictable, for any number of reasons, and at the same time, we’re talking about the biggest pitcher contract in the history of the sport. That shouldn’t be something you just calmly nod at, but though this wasn’t a foregone conclusion, it was at least a popular guess. Price reunited with Dave Dombrowski on a team in need of an ace. Word is Boston blew the competition out of the water, which is what they figured to do.

Writing about these giant free-agent contracts is always a challenge. People want to know, “is it worth it?” and the bigger the contract, and the longer the contract, the more assumptions there are being made. You have to guess a player’s skill, and decline. You have to guess what a win is worth, now, and many years down the road. You have to guess at inflation, and around everything, you have to guess at a team’s success or failure. In the end, you’re left guessing. The teams themselves are left guessing. It’s not like they know the future much better than we do. It’s not like they understand injury risk much better than we do. Numbers are put on paper, and players sign on lines, and, subsequently, life happens. Each contract might turn out to be good, bad, or anywhere in between.

People want answers. There aren’t answers. Not that we know. Years down the road, we’ll all have opinions of the David Price contract with the Red Sox, but we can’t know what those opinions will be. I’m sorry to have to put it like that, but let’s leave this uncertainty behind, shall we? Let’s just focus on what we do know. That’s as much as can be done.

We know it’s a lot of money. The most money for a pitcher yet. And those big numbers dazzle us, and they frighten us, and they make us wonder how any player could ever be worth so much playing a game in a world so troubled. But this is the market, and though few other players will earn a Price-level salary, few other players have Price-level ability, and so the money does logically make sense. This isn’t far from what a reasonable estimate would’ve projected. There are actually ways to make it look like Boston is getting a deal, and while they probably aren’t, again, we’re making assumptions, or guesses. The market of the future is only so predictable.

We know the market changes. Or, we know inflation isn’t steady and consistent. I pulled up the last seven years of opening-day payrolls, just because this is a seven-year contract so I got the number “seven” in my head. Between 2010 and 2011, teams increased spending by just 2%. But between 2013 and 2014, teams increased spending by more than 11%, and between 2014 and 2015, they increased spending by more than 8%. We frequently guess at a 5% rate of inflation, and it’s in the ballpark of being true, probably, but we don’t know what it’ll be. Teams are always spending more. There’s so much money.

We know the Red Sox can afford this. Any ownership group would be able to afford this, but a contract worth $X on Boston is easier to take than a contract worth $X on Miami. The money’s worth the same, of course, but Boston just has more to play with. Over that same seven-year period, the Red Sox have bounced around in the top four of payrolls, and really it’s been going on longer than that; going back further just doesn’t matter. The Red Sox are equipped to deal with a certain amount of dead money, if they have to. Even if Price is overpaid by, say, $5 million a year, that leaves the Red Sox with an “effective” payroll of $5 million less than whatever big number they arrive at. The Red Sox will be fine. They’ll always have money.

We know the opt-out clause shouldn’t be ignored. It’s easy to look at this as seven years and $217 million, but like Dave put it, it’s like a three-year contract with a four-year option, and that’s player-friendly. If Price ends up more than worth the money early on, he’ll go get more. If he runs into trouble, Boston can’t get out of the commitment. People differ on how opt-out clauses should be valued, but you could say this is worth even more than $217 million in a way, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

We know it’s important to consider Boston’s greater circumstance. And I don’t even mean consecutive last-place finishes in a city that doesn’t tolerate that. I mean the Red Sox are said to have a deep farm system, even after the Craig Kimbrel trade, and there’s cost-controlled young talent on the big-league roster as well, and that cost near-certainty helps allow for big contracts like Price’s, because you’re getting bargains at so many positions you can spend big somewhere else. Young players don’t stay cheap, and they don’t always develop like you want them to, but the Red Sox are set up well long-term, so again, that should cushion any eventual problems. Unless Dombrowski keeps trading more prospects for relievers.

We know the Red Sox suddenly project real well for 2016. I shouldn’t say “suddenly” — Price didn’t change the whole picture. But I just looked at the early team WAR projections, based on Steamer and the depth charts, and the Red Sox lead the American League. That can only go so far. Duh. There’s a whole lot of offseason left, and just last year we were touting how well the Red Sox were projected in March. The Mariners, too. The projections had a rough year last year in the AL. But I think this much should be clear: the Red Sox ought to be good. They’re a contender, today. Maybe the best team in the division. So the timing was right for a move like this, even if it’s a bit of an overpay, which isn’t entirely clear. The 2016 Red Sox could win it all. They have a lineup, an ace, and a closer.

We know Price is almost as good as it gets. He’s not Clayton Kershaw, unless we’re really underestimating the difference between leagues, but the last three years, Price ranks third among pitchers in WAR. He’s only gotten stronger, and he’s never had a badly serious DL stint, and over those three years he’s also fourth in innings, not even counting the playoffs. If you prefer the other WAR, he ranks sixth. No one questions whether Price has been an ace. He’s been an ace. Those are the guys most likely to be aces, again, in the near future.

We know Price has some risk factors working in his favor. The miles on his arm might be a problem — he’s unquestionably got some wear and tear. But then, he’s never had a catastrophic injury. He pounds the zone, more than almost anyone else. He throws strikes, more than almost anyone else. He throws fewer breaking balls than almost anyone else, if you consider a cutter a form of a fastball. Price is a strike-throwing command pitcher who uses different types of fastballs to get his strikeouts, and while no one’s ever clear of injury risk as a pitcher, Price could stay healthy. He’s not spinning slider after slider. He’s built like, and he’s been, a workhorse.

We know he could go all Brandon Webb. Between 24 and 29, Webb threw more than 1,300 innings. From 30 on, he threw 4. If you don’t like the Webb example, you could go with the Johan Santana example. It’s less severe, but only by a little.

We know, alternatively, he could go all Roger Clemens. Or Mike Mussina, or Andy Pettitte, or whoever. They were good, and they kept going. They didn’t break down. Whenever you think about seven guaranteed years for an aging starting pitcher, you want to factor in some time lost to injury. Price might not get injured. Cliff Lee is an interesting comp, and he made it to 35 before his arm went. Granted, Price will turn 35 before this contract is up. So the Lee bit didn’t belong in this paragraph, probably. But sometimes durable pitchers stay durable.

We know, from 1979 – 2008, 17 starters threw at least 1,000 innings between the ages of 25 – 29, with an FIP- between 65 and 85. They averaged 26 WAR, more or less matching Price’s last five years. Over the following seven years, those pitchers averaged 1,009 innings, and 21 WAR. Webb is included as just about a big fat zero. Not that you can just toss him out — that’s something that could happen. The Red Sox are paying Price to be worth more than 21 WAR over the life of this deal, but not actually by that much. And if you figure he’s slightly less of an injury risk, it about works out. You can never know what’ll happen. You can guess at how the probabilities shift.

Here’s what we know we’re left with: for a high price, the Red Sox have agreed to sign a guy who’s been one of the very best starting pitchers. Those are the pitchers who tend to remain the very best starting pitchers. With Price, and with Kimbrel, the Red Sox appear to have a team capable of going all the way in the season ahead. Other teams will also be capable of doing that, and the odds will be against Boston, but they wanted to get themselves in position to have a chance, and there are few things you can do to make a bigger difference than sign an ace out of nowhere to drop into an otherwise mediocre rotation. Ace in, mediocrity out. That’s a bunch of wins right there. It’s a little like a shortcut, perhaps, but the Sox can afford this, because they’re the Sox. Every single contract is a gamble. Price isn’t a greater gamble, in terms of individual risk. There’s just an unusual amount riding on one roll of the dice. It’s a boom-or-bust contract, but Dave Dombrowski at least knows his way around these.

Maybe it’ll be worth it, and maybe it won’t. Not a single person knows that answer. Dombrowski just loves himself a luxury item. They’re very high-quality things.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

Greinke will have a higher annual salary than price but won’t have as many years