Earlier today, we talked about the Rays’ signing of ace David Price to a contract worth just over 10 million dollars to avoid arbitration. Price’s deal certainly stands out as it’s well over double the 4.35 million dollars he made in 2012, but Price is certainly worth the money after an incredible 2012 culminating in the AL Cy Young Award. However, the more pressing concern is Price’s long-term future with the Rays. Price’s 10+ million dollar contract is already right up there for the most lucrative contracts in the history of the Rays and how will the Rays be able to afford Price as he gets increasingly expensive in advance of his free agency following 2015 MLB season? Could the Rays have avoided this scenario where Price becomes a dominant pitcher that they’ll seemingly inevitably have to trade?
Previously this offseason, the Rays announced that they had signed star third baseman Evan Longoria to a seven-year contract extension beyond the 3 years he already had under contract, keeping him in a Rays uniform through 2022 with an option for 2023. Obviously the Rays would love to have Longoria, their leader and one of the best third basemen in baseball, under contract for an extremely long time, but the timing of the contract seemed curious. Longoria has played in just 207 games the last two seasons including just 74 games in 2012, mashing to a .261/.360/.507 line (142 OPS+) when he has been healthy, but suffering oblique, ankle, and hamstring injuries that make you question whether he’ll be able to stay healthy moving forward. If Longoria stays healthy, the 136 million dollars he’ll make over the next 10 years will be an absolute steal. But how sure can the Rays be that Longoria will find a way to remain on the field to sign him for such a huge contract? The answer is that they’re not. At the same time, though, the last two injury-riddled seasons put Longoria’s value at the lowest it could ever be, and the Rays seized an opportunity to take a calculated risk with Longoria knowing that the potential reward would be of unbelievable proportions.
The Rays have signed players to risky extensions before. Prior to Longoria’s deal, they had also signed Scott Kazmir to a 4-year deal after 2007 after just one full healthy season where he looked like an ace and Wade Davis to a 4-year extension with three options afterwards after he had only pitched one full year in the major leagues. Why didn’t the Rays consider the same type of deal with Price?
After the 2008 season, when Price had just 5 regular season appearances under his belt to go along with 5 in the postseason, why didn’t the Rays sign David Price to a Matt Moore-esque extension? The answer to that question is that Price was signed to a major league contract coming out of the 2007 MLB Draft and was already guaranteed money for the next several years, and adding financial commitment to that when he was still unproven did not seem like a good idea. Then in 2009, Price struggled to a 4.42 ERA in his rookie season, and the Rays had to have doubts as to whether Price would ever live up to his potential. But the following season, the opposite sentiment became true as Price dominated to the tune of a 19-6 record, a 2.72 ERA, and a 188-79 strikeout to walk ratio in 208.2 innings as he finished second in the AL Cy Young voting. Suddenly Price’s value was sky-high and an extension was going to be next to possible. But the most interesting time for the Rays to extend Price was after the 2011 season. In 2011, Price had a good season but did not live up to the standard set by his breakout 2010, going 12-13 with a 3.49 ERA, an 8.7 K/9, a 2.5 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in 34 starts and 224.1 innings pitched. Price actually improved his strikeout to walk ratio quite a bit from 2010 to 2011 (2.38-to-1 versus 3.46-to-1) and set career-highs for starts, innings pitched, and strikeouts, but he was worse at least on the surface and it was the perfect time for the Rays to approach Price and his agent, Bo McKinnis, about an extension.
In those negotiations, whether they actually happened or not, both sides would acknowledge that Price was one heck of a pitcher. The question would be just how good. The Rays wound be betting that Price would continue to improve as a pitcher and would have to come up with contract values for three or four years that would accurately represent that. Whatever they could have offered definitely could have been less than 10 million dollars for 2013. After making $2,084,671 in 2011, they could have paid him a touch more for 2012, say 4.75 million dollars, then 7.5 million dollars for 2013, 10 million dollars for 2014, and 13 million dollars for 2015. It would be a contract similar to the ones that James Shields and Scott Kazmir both received prior to 2008 but worth more money than either one and also not buying out a single free agency year, only giving the Rays financial security for the rest of Price’s time under team control. The deal could have been a win-win as both sides would have clarity for the next four years before Price’s free agency, and as long as Price didn’t get injured or become a consistently dominant number one starter, both sides would get great value. Of course, Price did in fact became that unhittable ace in 2012, and if he had signed that extension, he could very well be regretting it now. If the Rays talked with Price about an extension before 2011, Price and his agent had to know just how talented Price was and given that he had been just about entirely healthy since an elbow injury back in April of 2008 when he was still in the minor leagues, they were understandably to risk some stability knowing that Price had the ability to overpower major league hitters every time out and increase his earning potential exponentially. They were right, and in 2013 and the rest of Price’s arbitration-eligible years, they’re going to reap the benefits. However, the fact that they didn’t agree to an extension could very well mean that the latter two of those arbitration seasons will not be happening in Tampa Bay.
The Rays had a golden opportunity to extend David Price following the 2011 season. However, no matter how hard they tried, it never came together, and the repercussions will continue to reverberate in 2013 and beyond. It wasn’t their fault- Price is an incredible pitcher and he knows it, and because of that he declined to sign a safe team-friendly extension that would give him financial security but also curb his earning potential. Unfortunately for the Rays, though, Price’s lack of an extension puts his future with the Rays into serious question and the Rays’ only option down the line may be to trade Price away.