On Falling Off A Cliff: The Supposed Necessity of the David Price Trade


In the wake of the David Price trade, Rays’ Executive VP Andrew Friedman made some comments that not trading Price would have put the Rays in a hard spot. Everyone listening to Tampa Bay media is being reminded that the Rays would have gotten marginally-to-dramatically less value in return if they waiting till the offseason. Why is that something that everyone is accepting?

Sep 18, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays general manager Andrew Friedman before the game against the Texas Rangers at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Well, Max Scherzer, James Shields, and Jon Lester would all be on the market this winter, and so trading-partners would be thin, more unwilling to indulge the Rays in a trade when they could just sign one of the three above. What might any of these pitchers expect on the open-market? Well, Zack Greinke commanded $147 million for 6 years from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not one of the pitchers will touch Clayton Kershaw‘s total money. But they still should expect something like high 20’s if not touching $30 mill a year, depending on the length of the contract.

Apparently the Detroit Tigers, some months ago, offered Scherzer a 6 year contract for $144 million. He declined it. In the midst of another good year, leading the AL in wins and win percentage, while running 5th in strikeouts, Scherzer might expect more. So, say some team offers him $150 million for 6 years, that’d be, on average, $25 million per year.

Lester was reportedly offered $70 million over 4 years by the Red Sox.  He declined it, but he still said he was open to a hometown discount and has said that he’d be willing to re-sign in Boston in the offseason. All of that, of course, is worthless at this point, and there’s no reason to expect him to get less than his market value of $20+ million.

David Price at least is expected to make $20 million next year. But he’s only under contract for 2015. This certainly hurts his trade value. But one year of David Price at $20 million might not appear so bad when compared with  having to sign Scherzer or Lester for 6 or 7 years. Take a look at the New York Yankees, a team overburdened by long-term contracts for aging/aged superstars (or the injured Masahiro Tanaka) now fighting for a wildcard spot. Now, the Boston Red Sox have gone from worst-to-first and back to worst this year (to make a run for next year): getting a great player, one motivated to play for the big contract, for just one season would not be as crucial an error as weighing yourself down with salary over long years. This thinking would require a deal with a team that’s just on the verge of being good, and many teams picture themselves to be in a playoff hunt before the season starts.

I only want to suggest that David Price is not in the same category as the free agents. Teams might be willing to go “all-in” for a season with Price that might not be able or willing to get in the conversation to sign Scherzer. So pointing to Scherzer, Lester, and Shields isn’t an obvious move in explaining the Price trade.

Recently, Andrew Friedman said that the danger of not trading Price at this time is “falling off a cliff,” meaning rebuilding for five to then years. But surely this is overblown. Imagine that the Rays don’t trade David Price, and just let him walk after next season. Are they now in the basement? Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, and Chris Archer are all potential future All-Stars. Is a staff featuring those three and Jake Odorizzi plus, say, Alex Colome destined for the basement? I think not. Of course, the Rays will have forfeited the value they might have acquired in trading Price, but it is false to say that not trading Price will lead to years and years of rebuilding. And if the cliff really isn’t a cliff, then it’s just an empty threat, isn’t it? It might even seem a panicky justification for a deal that initially was unpopular.

Now that those of us in the Tampa-St. Pete area have heard ad nauseum that “this is just the kind of team the Rays are” we might want to stop thinking about the trade. Just what sort of team is that? A team that will be ruined if one player’s trade value is mishandled? That also seems like that team doesn’t draft very well, or at least it doesn’t have that much to look forward to coming out of the minors for the next 5 to 10 years. And, honestly, the Rays don’t have the best farm-system. Far from it. Is that a consequence of not trading Price? No. Did trading Price make their minor-league system much better? Willy Adames and Nick Franklin make it better, sure, but did they save the next 5 to 10 years?

A lot of thinking gets stopped when the Price Trade is “explained” by appealing to the kind of team the Rays are. If part of the motivation to deal for MLB-ready players like Drew Smyly or Nick Franklin is to try to “thread the needle” and keep competing this year while building for the future, keeping Price surely would have helped for this year, and then can we really declare that Smyly is obviously a better pitcher than Colome or Enny Romero? He’s had more MLB experience, certainly, but he wouldn’t stop the Rays from falling off of a cliff. But one way to avoid “the cliff” would be to draft better, and sure that’s often a matter of luck. Another way would be to have your players under contract (e.g. Evan Longoria) play up to their talent level.

Luckily, there is no cliff.