The Danger of Keeping David Price for the Tampa Bay Rays

Six starts into 2014, David Price has a 4.75 ERA. But wait a second–Price had a 5.24 ERA through 9 starts last season before heading onto the disabled list. If Price is healthy this time and gets his performance back to normal, then the Rays are in great shape. Calling this a worst-case scenario would be quite the exaggeration. But here’s the thing: prior to that rough start to 2013, Price had never managed an ERA as high as 4.75 in any six-start stretch since 2009. Suddenly David Price is human.

Instead of blowing by hitters with a fastball reaching the upper-90’s, Price needs to locate his low-90’s fastball on the corners or get hit hard. He remains a great pitcher and an undisputed ace, but now there is an element of risk. The Tampa Bay Rays electing to hold onto David Price was not a simple choice of having him to anchor their rotation or dealing him for prospects. Keeping Price meant that the Rays had to contend with the outcome where injury or poor performance left them when an expensive asset for whom they could not get fair value in a trade.

The Rays declined to trade David Price because they never received an offer that provided them with as much of a return as they believed he would provide in 2014. Either Price’s perceived value was lower than his actual value, or no one was willing to give up the prospects necessary to trade for a player as talented as Price. The latter outcome is a possibility, but the former is more interesting. Price was coming off a season where his average fastball velocity went down with from 96.22 MPH to 94.15 MPH and he missed a month and a half with a triceps injury. Those two factors did not mean that Price could not register another ace-like season this year, but the risk involved in acquiring him was significantly higher than before. Injury risk is often a factor in trades, but when the Rays are asking you for high-end prospects like Taijuan Walker or players one step below like Nick Franklin, prospective Price suitors had to be especially sensitive to injury concerns.

In the James Shields trade, the Kansas City Royals knew there was a real chance they would get burned by trading Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi, but they also knew there was a high probability they would get a pair of 200-inning seasons from Shields. Even though Price is a better pitcher, no one wants to deal with uncertainty in a deal as big as it would take. The risk avoidance of their peers had to be a major reason why the Rays kept Price, but holding onto him also came with an additional incentive: if he pitched well and stayed off the disabled list, they could have him for an additional year without lessening their return much if at all. With that in mind, the choice became obvious for the Rays to retain David Price to be their Opening Day starter. It was a gamble, but a worthwhile one. But even if there was an 85% chance that keeping him would turn out for the best, the other 15% is becoming obvious now.

Price’s velocity has only dipped further down to 93.59 MPH, but the biggest concern for the Rays has to be not Price, but everyone else. Price could be everything the Rays expect him to be, but the rest of the team could struggle enough that they don’t make the playoffs. It’s always nice to have an ace anchoring your staff, but is it really worth it to risk losing future value for a player who isn’t getting you anywhere? Maybe the Rays could consider trading Price at the deadline if their season falls short of expectations, but would they actually demoralize their team like that in a year that began with World Series aspirations? The Rays have the ability to rebound and make this scenario entirely irrelevant. Right now, though, the odds are as high as ever that they fail to execute and wind up in this quandary.

The Tampa Bay Rays made the right move by holding onto David Price given the circumstances they were presented with this offseason. At the end of the day, however, the right move does not always work out.