We all know what’s going on with the Red Sox this winter, as it’s something we here at OTM have talked about ad nauseam. Boston, despite being one of the most obscenely wealthy and valuable professional sports franchises in the world, is looking to cut payroll significantly. In an ideal world (for them), they would get under the $208 million luxury tax threshold. The whole plan, while their right to implement, comes at an extremely inopportune time with the roster in a clear win-now mode in a way that is not really getting any cheaper. There is really no way to go through this plan without making the roster worse, or at the very least without making it exponentially more difficult to put a true contender on the field.
There are, however, ways to cut payroll if the team is so inclined to continue with this strategy. The Mookie Betts situation has been one of the biggest talking points of the offseason. It doesn’t seem like it will happen because team control is apparently more important in the league than rostering one of the two best players in baseball in his prime, so the packages available for him aren’t all that impressive. Jackie Bradley Jr. was tendered a contract, but at a projected $11 million in arbitration the Red Sox will certainly look to deal him. The Nathan Eovaldi contract appeared to go belly-up before it even started, and the Red Sox are apparently trying to deal him. David Price is the highest-paid pitcher of all time and is also wrapped up in trade rumors.
Among those possibilities, if we were to put them on a graph with one axis measuring salary relief impact and another measuring likelihood to happen, Price would be the furthest from origin in my arbitrary, made-up measurements. This is the rumor that has had the most staying power, and it makes sense. From the Red Sox perspective, they would shed a significant amount of salary — which, again, whether we like it or not is their goal — even if they have to eat some money. From other teams’ perspective, Price is still an effective pitcher, and given Boston’s motivation revolving almost entirely around financials he can likely be had without giving up anything of significance from your farm system. If you’re not a fan of the free agents available, Price could be a nice alternative who is available for what is essentially just money. As we look back at that Red Sox perspective, however, I would argue we (the royal we, as in everyone talking about the Red Sox) are underrating the effect this would have on this team on the field.
Now, there are legitimate cases against Price the player at this point in his career. For one thing, he is certainly on the back nine of his career, getting set to enter his age-34 season. Relatedly, he has also had trouble staying on the field over the last few seasons, throwing at least 110 innings in only one of them and tossing only 176 1⁄3 in 2018, which was his highest total. (He did add 26 more innings in the postseason that year, of course.) Pointing that stuff out as reason why getting out from the remaining three years and $96 million would be beneficial to the team is not entirely unfair.
On the other hand, when he has been on the field he has been one of the most productive players on the roster. Even last season, when his numbers looked bad on paper, his 4.28 ERA was 13 percent better than league-average by ERA+, and his FIP of 3.62 pointed to him being fairly significantly better than that ERA. Going back to 2017, among the 145 pitchers with at least 250 innings over that stretch, Price has been a top-30 pitcher in the game by park-adjusted ERA. Even if you look at WAR, Price has been a top-20 pitcher in the game by Baseball-Reference WAR on a per-inning basis and top-40 by FanGraphs WAR, again on a per-inning basis. Now, pitcher WAR is far from my favorite metric, but it is an easy shorthand to show productivity. Obviously doing things by a per-inning basis also serves to wash over the injury issues. Again, though, it’s a shorthanded way to show the skills when on the field.
We can also look at things a little more anecdotally and go back to the midway point in the 2018 season. This has been on-record for a while now, but Price became a different pitcher at that point. He finally stopped trying to be prime-David Price who could blow fastballs by everyone. Instead, he focused more on his changeup and cutters, and the results were great. Over the second half of 2018, he pitched to a 2.25 ERA while allowing an OPS of .586. In the postseason he pitched to a 3.46 ERA with a .659 OPS. In the first half of 2019 he pitched to a 3.24 ERA while allowing a .648 OPS. Then he hurt his wrist, had trouble throwing the cutter and things fell apart. That brings the health questions back to the forefront, of course, but it also shows a significant sample of success over the last two seasons due to adjustments that should be mostly or entirely sustainable.
All of this is to say, if the Red Sox do trade Price — and again, I understand the case for this — then they still have to turn around and replace him. At worst, Price is the third starter for the Red Sox right now, and that depends on Chris Sale’s health and Eduardo Rodriguez’ chances to repeat his 2018. Boston doesn’t have the arms in-house to replace him, either. They are already looking for a back-of-the-rotation arm, and without Price they’d suddenly have to add a mid-rotation arm (at least) on top of that if they want to contend in 2020. Which, given their offense, should absolutely be the plan.
Now, without Price they would obviously have a little more money to spend, but how much really? First of all, the assumption around the league seems to be that the Red Sox wouldn’t be able to dump all of Price’s contract, so let’s assume they are only freeing up $20-$25 million for next year’s payroll. Throw in the $11 million from Bradley, too, because we can still assume they’ll try to trade him, too. According to Cots Contracts, with that money off the books the Red Sox would have $20-$25 million to spend while staying under the luxury tax. That sounds good until you realize the available starters who could be in the neighborhood of Price’s productivity — guys like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Madison Bumgarner and Dallas Keuchel — are going to command an AAV of around $15-$20 million. The FanGraphs crowdsourcing predictions, for reference, have that group all within an AAV in the $16-$18 million range, but they have also been low on the starting pitcher market so far.
Suddenly, all of that money the team saved this year is being put into one contract, likely around four years in length, on a pitcher who might be as good as Price when healthy if things go exceedingly well. But then they are still left with holes at backup catcher and the back of the rotation and the right side of the infield and in center field (or any outfield spot if they slide Betts or Andrew Benintendi over in the event of a Bradley trade), to say nothing of the possibility of upgrading the bullpen. Maybe Chaim Bloom has some creative solution up his sleeve that I don’t see, but even on the trade market it’s hard to see dealing for a legitimate Price replacement with Boston’s farm system. And, even if they did, that cuts into the possibility of “sustainable competitiveness” that this front office and baseball in general is so fond of.
None of this is to say there is no argument for trading Price. Again, payroll is clearly on the mind of Red Sox brass and that isn’t going to change until they get under the tax. Price is their biggest contract, and this might be the best chance to get rid of it. It’s not a slam dunk move, though, as some have made it out to be. Is Price worth the big contract he’s being paid in the strictest sense of the word? No, this is not an ideally efficient deal. However, the team is better with him and if they still want to contend in 2020 they are going to have a helluva time replacing him, even with the theoretical additional payroll flexibility. The way things are going I think the Red Sox will find a way to trade Price. I also think, at this time next year, in terms of 2020 performance we will look back and view that move as one that hindered this team’s chances of winning.