Why David Price Might Get Traded Before Shields

It’s no secret that the Tampa Bay Rays need to trade a starting pitcher this offseason. They have seven starting pitchers that could potentially fit in their 2012 rotation: David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Alex Cobb, and top prospect Matt Moore. Trading one of these players would allow the Rays to fill in other holes on their roster — first base and catcher are concerns — while freeing up room for Matt Moore to slide in. The only question is, who do the Rays trade away?

The Rays could approach things from two directions. They could trade away one of the trio of Niemann, Davis, or Cobb, as those three are most expendable and the one-two-three punch of Price, Shields, and Moore would be quite sexy. Or the Rays could do what most people assume they will do: trade away James Shields. Shields is one of the most valuable trade chips in baseball, so he would return a large package while also freeing up $7 million in payroll space.

All these rumors glance over two pitchers: Jeremy Hellickson and David Price. Helly isn’t likely to be moved due to his high ceiling and team-controlled salary, but David Price presents an interesting conundrum. If the Rays are considering trading Shields, Price should also be on the market…and the Rays might be better off trading him.

Over the next three seasons, James Shields has three team options worth a total of $28 million ($7m, $9m, and $12m) and David Price will be entering his first three arbitration years.¬†According to Matt Swartz’s new arbitration prediction model, David Price will likely make around $7.8 million this upcoming season (his Arb1 year). If Price actually makes that much this upcoming season — or even somewhat close to that total — he could easily become more expensive than Shields as early as 2013 (heck, or 2012).

No pitcher yet has made more than $7 million in their first year of arbitration, so Price’s payday would be huge, although not unexpected. When Tim Lincecum filed for Arb1, he attempted to get a salary of $13 million; he eventually reached an agreement with the Giants for 2 year, $23 million. Lincecum was better than Price over his first handful of seasons, but when you look at the statistics most important for arbitration filings, the two are closer than you’d expect:

Few pitchers start off their career with such a run of dominance. If you look at all the top pitchers in the game right now, it’s difficult to find others pitchers that pitched at this high a level — at least, according to these three stats — right out of the gate. Not Justin Verlander, not Jered Weaver, not Cole Hamels, not Zack Greinke. Many of these pitchers commanded around $4-5 million in their first year of arbitration, but considering Price’s success, it’s not too crazy to think he gets somewhere between $6-8 million.

Since there are so few comps for Price, it’s difficult to tell how his salary will escalate in the coming years. Even if you’re optimistic, though, I don’t see how Price gets paid less than Shields’ $9 million club option for 2013. Lincecum got paid $13 million in his Arb2 season, and he’s projected to get around $19 million in Arb3 this offseason. Even if Price comes in way lower than those numbers, he’d still be well beyond the Rays’ price range.

With this in mind, the Rays have a couple options. They could decide to hold onto Shields and Price in 2012, trading Niemann/Davis/Cobb instead and making a hard run for the playoffs. This option would leave them less payroll flexibility in 2012, but they could free up room by moving B.J. Upton and fill in their few roster holes via trade. In this scenario, they would likely trade Price after 2012, as he’d be quickly getting more expensive than Shields. The Rays could then theoretically hold onto Shields through the end of his deal in 2014, or deal him depending on their payroll situation.

Or the Rays could trade Shields this offseason and Price next year. ¬†This would make their team weaker in both 2012 and 2013, but it would bring in a larger trade return and free up more money. I tend to think this rather unlikely at this point, though, as the Rays like to build around their pitching and holding onto both would make their 2012 team a strong contender. It’s a matter of trade-offs, and I think the Rays would optimize their roster (next season and in the future) by holding onto Shields and Price one more season.

This situation is why the Rays love signing their players to long-term deals. If they want to hold onto any of their players for an extended period of time, they need to have their salary locked in place and kept at a reasonable level. Price got too good too fast, and now the Rays are stuck in unenviable position of having to trade away one of their franchise players and fan favorites.

David Price will not be the first or last player to leave the Rays due to budget constraints, but he will be one of the losses that stings the most. I feel like his dominant performance in the 2008 ALCS happened only yesterday, yet I’m already getting ready to say goodbye. Such is life in a small market.

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

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Move BJ