The David-Price-to-the-Cubs rumor train has been chugging along since before the 2012 season. It made sense at the time – the Cubs would be in need of a big-time starting pitcher to pair with budding stars Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Jeff Samardzija. There was plenty of talent in the farm system, but the consensus was that it was mostly years away and of questionable projection. A stud pitcher would be a big stride in the right direction, and the price on David Price was not expected to be too crazy.
Things have changed quite a bit since last offseason.
Rizzo, Castro, and Samardzija all showed signs of regression, and two-thirds of the once-promising “core” are now the subject of trade rumors. Fortunately, for every backward step at the major league level, the farm system took two steps forward. Baez raked at Daytona and Tennessee and played himself into a top-10 prospect. Almora hit .329 and showed that he was truly a top-20 prospect, Soler looked good when he was on the field. Arismendy Alcantara turned a huge corner. Kris Bryant hasn’t stopped hitting bombs since joining the organization. A farm system that was previously in the top-15 or so in baseball is all of a sudden brimming with near-ready talent.
As for David Price, he isn’t remotely the same prize he once was. A triceps injury landed him on the shelf after a month and a half of 5.24 ERA ball that stemmed from a lack of strikeouts and, troublingly, diminished velocity. Price came back strong after the injury, posting a 2.53 ERA in 169 innings, but his strikeout rate was only 6.97 per nine innings.
David Price in 2014 and Beyond
For a player who has seemingly been around for as long as David Price has been, it’s a little shocking to look back on how few great seasons he has had. In fact, depending on your WAR of choice, he’s really only been above average save for the 2012 season.
You see, there’s a few dirty little secrets that don’t get enough press when people talk about the Rays’ consistently great pitching staff: Jose Molina and Joe Maddon’s defensive gameplanning. Jose Molina has, if you believe BaseballProspectus’ numbers, been worth an enormous amount of runs to the Rays staff by way of pitch framing. In 2012, they concluded he saved their staff 50 runs. (To put that in perspective, that’s roughly what Prince Fielder’s .313/30HR campaign that year was worth.) And if a pitch was put into play before Molina was able to bring it back into the strike zone, the Tampa Bay defense was swallowing up balls in play at a rate that placed the in the top 4 in baseball in the last few years. Combined with a pitcher-friendly home ballpark, Price was throwing in one of the best environments imaginable for a pitcher.
After such things are taken into consideration, a pitcher with very good numbers like Price doesn’t look quite as impressive in the eyes of WAR. Below is a chart of his value in each full season with Tampa Bay:
The real question becomes, then, do we believe that he can sustain what he did in 2012 and the second half of 2013? And how does that affect his long-term projection? Personally, I do not think 2012 Price is the real one, at least not by ERA. Look at this comparison of Price’s 2012 Cy Young campaign and the years before and after:
The 2011 and 2012 seasons are strikingly similar, save for a ground-ball rate in 2012 that spiked to a career-high 53.1%. If you’re wondering where the homeruns, and thus the runs scored, went, there’s your culprit. If Price could sustain such a high groundball rate, maybe I’d believe that he was a 3.00 FIP pitcher going forward. Unfortunately, those groundball rates came right back down to his career norms in 2013. With the diminished velocity and bat-missing ability displayed in 2013, it’s difficult to imagine Price posting an ERA in the mid-2’s range consistently, or that he’ll keep enough balls in the park to retain a 3.03 FIP. It is also highly unlikely that Price ever strands 81% of baserunners in a single season again, which was a significant factor in 2012.
So how does a pitcher like him project going forward? Well, I’m no prize-winning mathematician who can put together something like PECOTA, so I’ll be using the good, ol’ fashioned quick-and-dirty method: Assume a player increases in value by half a win until his peak, than decreases in value by half a win every year past his peak. It’s not perfect, but it’s good for getting a ballpark estimate.
I’ll also assume Price in 2014 can expect to see small statistical regressions in K%, BB%, FB%, HR/FB%, and innings pitched. At 22%, 5%, 35%, 9.5%, and 210 (at 3.96 batters faced per inning) respectively, you get a FIP of about 3.60. Over 210 innings, that’s roughly 4 to 4.5 wins. From there, here is roughly what we could expect over 2014 and beyond:
(2014-2015 contract based off of MLB Trade Rumors’s arbitration projections. 5yr/120 million contract extension signed at end of those years is just less than what Verlander received (5yrs/140 million) and it seems right that Price would not out-earn Verlander. $/WAR starting out at $6 million, as new TV revenue likely to increase money paid in free agency per win, and then inflated at 5% annually to account for general trend of contract values.)
Is that a pitcher that puts the Cubs over the top? In the short-term, it just might be. But in the long run, the Cubs would be taking on negative value by trading for and signing Price, and that’s before you factor in the cost in prospects.
They say it only takes one idiot for a guy to get a $100 million contract, and the same principle applies in trades. It’s only going to take one crazy team to make the David Price haul legendary. Last year, James Shields, a pitcher who was less effective than Price was traded for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard. This trade is roughly analogous to the Cubs trading Javier Baez, Pierce Johnson/Cj Edwards, Trey McNutt, and a recent draftee. That’s a pretty hefty package.
You better believe Price is going to command more than Shields in trade. Peter Gammons has cited sources saying the Dodgers may be willing to move Corey Seagar, Julio Urias, and two of Joc Pederson, Zach Lee, and Chris Withrow for Price alone. That haul would be immense, and I guess the Cubs would have to put up an offer containing Baez, Almora, Edwards/Johnson, and Dan Vogelbach to match such a deal. And this would be for the rights to him for two (expensive) seasons before ponying up big cash in a contract extension.
Short Term Impact
If such a deal were made, the Cubs would no doubt be better in 2014 and 2015. David Price would likely be very good for those two seasons, and having a true staff ace is nothing to scoff at. However, I fail to see how this deal would put the Cubs into contention.
If Price adds 4-5 wins, and Castro, Rizzo, and Samardzija improve, maybe the Cubs add 12 wins before signing any free agents. This still leaves them as a markedly mediocre team that would struggle to find .500. And if they were in the playoff race near the deadline, little help would be coming from the minors. Bryant may be up by June, but there’s a strong chance he needs a full season between AA and AAA. Alcantara probably doesn’t contribute meaningfully this year, and there’s little pitching help leftover. And what if Castro, Rizzo, and Samardzija don’t improve all that much? You have a star starting pitcher with little help around him and fewer reinforcements coming along.
Simply put, the Cubs would likely struggle to field a team capable of contending for the division during the two seasons where Price provides surplus value without relying heavily on free agency. There’s been few, if any, actions by the current front office to suggest that relying on increasingly thin and expensive free agent markets will be part of their strategy, and whispers that the team couldn’t afford to increase payroll much abound. John Arguello at CubsDen cited sources saying the Cubs might increase payroll by $25-$35 million, but after internal raises, only $10-20 million would be left over for acquisitions. David Price alone would eat up $13 million of that, leaving very little money left to put quality pieces around Price in 2014.
Long Term Impact
Once Price’s contract extension kicks in in 2016, the Cubs system would probably have produced quite a few starting regulars, and hopefully a star or two. Bryant, Alcantara, one of Edwards/Johnson, and maybe a few others would be easing into their major league roles, and the team would likely be pretty strong, free agent spending or not. Unfortunately, this is right around when we would expect David Price to start declining in value. He’d still be a good pitcher from 2016 on, but he would be paid exorbitantly for diminishing production.
In such a situation, the competitive teams the Cubs acquired David Price to pitch for would also be competitive teams for which David Price was not a star. All that has been accomplished is prolonging the rebuild process in order to add a 3-win starter when it comes time to win meaningful games. Maybe the marginal improvements in 2014 and 2015 would provide a boost in TV and Radio contract negotiations, but I can’t imagine a 78 win team that’s out of it from mid-April onwards is significantly more of a TV draw than a 68-72 win team.
So Why Trade for David Price?
Why trade for him, indeed. David Price is a good pitcher, but one who has only been elite for one season in his career. He’ll be expensive even in his arbitration years, he’ll be exceedingly expensive in terms of prospect cost, and unfathomably expensive in his contract-extension years. There’s very little, if any, surplus value there. And if the old “core” does not improve, trading away half the farm for David Price leaves the organization right back where it was a few seasons back – with a 5 win pitcher and no one around him.