When the Tampa Bay Rays traded David Price, the initial reaction from…everyone was that the Rays dealt their playoff chances a significant hit. It is understandable why. Price is an excellent pitcher, and while the Rays did acquire a major league starter who can take his rotation spot, Drew Smyly, he certainly is not that good. However, the difference may be less than we would think.
The big thing to realize in regards to David Price and Drew Smyly is that the season is already two-thirds done. David Price is still going to be a better pitcher, but he has less time to differentiate himself. In addition, we have to factor in fluctuation in performance. Price has been unhittable lately, but he struggled in his last start against the Milwaukee Brewers, reminding us that he isn’t perfect and could struggle to an extent as a member of the Detroit Tigers. If Price is slightly below-average for his career (3.25 ERA) while Smyly is slightly above-average (3.75 ERA), the difference between the two pitchers would not be so extreme, especially given the limited amount of starts both pitchers will make. To illustrate that point, we can look at rest-of-the-season projections from ZiPS and Steamer.
On the season as a whole, Price is at 3.9 WAR according to Fangraphs while Smyly is at 1.3. Clearly Price is a much more valuable pitcher. For the rest of the season, though, the difference between them will not be particularly significant pragmatically. ZiPS has Price at 1.5 WAR for the rest of 2014 while Smyly is at 0.7 WAR–we are talking only eight-tenths of a win here. Steamer has them even closer, putting Price at 1.2 WAR and Smyly right behind at 1.0 WAR. In that case, why would the Rays ever have thought to pay Price so much money the rest of the season when Smyly can nearly replicate his performance? Admittedly, that does not seem realistic, but if we split the difference, Price will only be better by Smyly by a half-win for the remainder of this season. There is a chance that could make a difference, but even if it does, the trade of Price will not be the reason that the Rays couldn’t continue contending.
What the Rays have done by acquiring Drew Smyly in exchange for David Price is ensure that the offense–not David Price’s rotation spot–is going to be the difference between the Rays fighting until the very end of the season or fading away in short order. Can Evan Longoria get back to being one of the best third basemen in baseball? Can Wil Myers and David DeJesus provide lifts when they return from the disabled list? Those are the type of questions we should be asking as we assess the chances of the Rays making the postseason. David Price may be a big loss for the Rays, but he is far from everything as his former team plays out the rest of this season.