We will deny it until the last possible moment, but the reality appears to be set in stone: David Price is about to be traded. Price himself admitted that he expects as such. The Rays will gage their offers and eventually deal Price for a substantial return. They will talk in their post-trade press conference about how tough it was to make the deal and how much they appreciate everything Price has given them, but they will take it all in stride and immediately move on to turning their 2014 team into another contender. That’s the outcome we’re waiting for, and the probability it turns into reality is extremely high. At the same time, though, the chances of Price being dealt are not 100%.
This offseason, the Rays will look to trade Price, but if they don’t get an offer up to their standards for whatever reason, they will not trade him just to trade him. They held onto Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton through free agency–Price will be more expensive, but the Rays could theoretically do the exact same thing. In that scenario, though, do not expect the Rays to go year-by-year with Price in arbitration anymore. They have said in the past that they can absorb another contract, but in order to do so, they will need to have cost certainty, even if the cost is high. If it comes to that, what would an extension for Price look like?
The best guide we are ever going to get to discussing David Price’s next contract is going to be Tim Lincecum. Their situations are not identical, but as David Hill noted earlier, their numbers are eerily similar statistically. Through two arbitration eligible seasons, both were 27 years old and Price is 71-39 while Lincecum is 69-41. Obviously record is far from the only thing to evaluate a pitcher, but luckily the comparison stretches well beyond that. Price has a 3.19 ERA, an 8.1 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 while Lincecum had a 2.98 ERA, a 9.9 K/9, a 3.3 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9. The strikeout numbers especially look off, but Price’s strikeout to walk ratio was 3.1 and Lincecum was right behind at 3.0. Price allowed 7.8 hits per 9 innings, Lincecum allowed 7.4. Price threw 8 complete games and Lincecum threw 8 as well. If we start at Price’s first full season in 2010, his 208 innings per season are nearly identical to Lincecum’s 2.6. And of course, Price won one Cy Young and finished second in 2010 while Lincecum won the NL Cy Young twice. Beyond the statistics, they are extremely different pitchers. Price is a 6’6″, 220 lefty while Linecum is a 5’11”, 170 right-hander. Price beats hitters with his excellent fastball movement command while Lincecum’s out-pitch is undeniably his changeup. But once pitchers establish themselves at the major league level, it is their performance that speaks more volumes than anything else, and from that perspective, Lincecum is as close of a comparable as we will ever find for Price. How does Lincecum’s contract history affect what Price could get in his remaining years under team control?
Lincecum never actually went through arbitration, instead agreeing to a two-year, $23 million contract prior to the 2010 season. Price has earned $14,462,500 through his first two arbitration-eligible seasons (what a difference one spot in the Cy Young voting makes!). Then prior to 2012, Lincecum agreed to a two-year, $40.5 million contract. After Lincecum made $14 million in 2011, the Giants had to pay him $18 million in 2012 and $22 million in 2013. What does that mean for Price? Price is projected for $13.1 million in 2014 after making $10.1125 million in 2013. The percentage change from $10.1125 million to $13.1 million is nearly identical to Lincecum’s $14 million to $18 million (30% versus 29%). If we use Lincecum’s second contract as a barometer, we would expect the Rays to offer Price a two-year, $29 million contract ($13.1 million in 2014 and $16 million in 2015). Add in a few million to entice Price to sign it, and let’s make it a two-year, $32 million contract that would give Price $14 million in 2014 and $17 million in 2015 with a $1 million signing bonus (Lincecum got a $2 million bonus in his first extension and $0.5 million in his second). That is hefty money, but at least the Rays would be able to budget around that the next two years.
The Rays want to get maximum value out of David Price. That will likely come in the form of a trade, but if they keep him, they will take full advantage of his pitching even if his price is above what they have paid in the past. But if they are going to go through the trouble of signing Price to an extension, could they go to buy out a free agent year as well? Price is currently set to hit the free agent market after his age 29 season–he will have turned 30 in August of 2015. The difference between 30 and 31 is huge for a free agent pitcher. If the Rays wanted to make Price push his free agency back a year, it will cost significant money, say a jump to $22 million for the third year. Could the Rays possibly pay that? Realistically, they would not. But that third year is valuable more as an idea than something the Rays would actually pay. Having that third year gives the Rays the flexibility to trade Price again later. They could use him at the front of their rotation for one more year yet keep his trade value high because the acquiring team would still have him for at least two years. And if they decide to keep Price for 2015 as well, instead of getting simply a draft pick for Price, they Rays could trade him for a significant return, albeit less than what they would get now. If the Rays believe that Price can keep up his level of play the past few years, having him for one or two years and still trading him for top prospects could actually be worth more than whatever trade package he could net them right now. The risk, though, is that Price either gets hurt or goes the way of Lincecum and begins to struggle mightily, leaving the Rays with an exceedingly expensive pitcher by their standards putting a huge strain on payroll. It is hard to see the Rays taking that risk.
Talk of a Price extension is more academic than anything else. No matter how much Rays fans want their ace to return, the value of Price’s pitching for the Rays will be overcome by the combination of the return when he is traded and the pitching depth the Rays already have in their system. As long as the Rays get anything near the type of offers they are expecting for Price, he will be dealt. But there is another path, however unlikely it is to occur, and thanks to Lincecum, there is already a framework in place for it to turn into reality.