12/4/15: Whether or Not Price is Right for Red Sox Depends on Your Perspective

Photo by Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons

My initial reaction to the Red Sox signing David Price was not a positive one.

To his credit, Price is a former Cy Young Award winner coming off a season in which he won 18 games with a league-leading 2.45 ERA and 225 strikeouts. The seven-year, $217 million pact gives Boston the front-of-the-rotation starter they so desperately need, less than two years after bungling negotiations with former ace Jon Lester.

But there’s plenty of room for skepticism. It’s New England, after all.

Most of the immediate negativity is directly related to the number of zeroes on the check. Acknowledging that the business of baseball is completely detached from economic reality, a long-term commitment for a 30-year old pitcher is still a gamble at best. It’s hard to imagine Price ever being “worth” the money.

There are other reasons, not the least of which is the uncomfortable position a deal of this magnitude creates for the franchise. Let’s review:

  1. It breaks from the Red Sox business model.

Let’s clear this one up right away: the Sox were going to spend major cash on somebody. We don’t know if Price was the right guy to cash the check, but the franchise crossed the Rubicon long ago.

The much-maligned Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez contracts were simply exclamation points on a decade of spending that started during the old regime with a massive overpay for Manny Ramirez (in hindsight, not a bad deal), while Theo Epstein added punctuation marks with long-term commitments on dregs like Julio Lugo and Daisuke Matsuzaka. While the short-term result was World Series success, the model wasn’t sustainable.

The Sox tried to revert to a more conservative approach under Ben Cherington. They unloaded the bloated Beckett, Crawford and Gonzalez contracts and built a 2013 squad that resembled a Red Sox team of my youth with a bunch of high-upside guys and reclamation projects. In the past, those teams were doomed to fail. Not that magical season. And it appeared the organization believed in the approach.

Following two consecutive last-place finishes on the heels of a championship, the Sox decided THAT model was unsustainable.

The switch to Dave Dombrowski represents yet another sea change in how the franchise does business. Craig Kimbrel joins the team as a legitimate bullpen stopper with three years left on his contract. The Price deal sends the strongest signal yet that Boston will pull out all the stops in the name of winning, and that fans coming to the ballpark should anticipate a high level of performance. That’s dangerous territory the team has navigated before, to less than encouraging results.

It also means they can’t pivot and preach fiscal conservancy when franchise shortstop Xander Bogaerts (or his agent, Scott Boras) starts sniffing around for a contract extension. At least without getting egg on their faces.

2. He’s not that good.

Price has compiled a nice regular season track record, but his playoff resume is full of dents. He shouldn’t be the highest paid-pitcher in Major League Baseball. In fact, I have a hard time including him in the top five at the position.

Who’s in my top five? In no particular order: Kershaw, Bumgarner, Sale, King Felix and Scherzer, all of whom boast a better average finish than Price in Cy Young voting over the last three seasons.

Two other names that meet the above criteria are Adam Wainwright — a slam dunk for the top five when his arm isn’t falling off, and current free agent Zack Greinke. Add in a new crop of Cy Young candidates including 2015 winners Dallas Keuchel (AL) and Jake Arrieta (NL), last year’s American League winner Corey Kluber, and franchise arms Gerrit Cole and Sonny Gray, and we’re up to twelve guys I’d comfortably include in a conversation with Price. And that’s not including Matt Harvey, whose nascent superstardom was interrupted by 2013 elbow surgery but has since resumed course.

I think Price settles somewhere between six and nine in that group. But certainly not at number one.

Invariably, it doesn’t matter. Just because Pedro Martinez deserved to be the highest-paid pitcher in the game when he signed with the Red Sox in 1997 doesn’t mean that Kevin Brown should have assumed the mantle when the Dodgers lined his pockets the following winter. Or that Mike Hampton would later break the bank with the Rockies. Or that Barry Zito would have a Scrooge McDuck moment for the Giants in 2007. Some talented arm will eventually step forward and supplant Price, perhaps as soon as when Greinke signs his deal.

Maybe you preferred Greinke. Or some other approach (see below). You got David Price.

3. It’s an incredibly risky investment.

Everyone remembers Sox owner John Henry’s common sense denouncement of teams spending extravagantly for players over the age of 30.

Things haven’t changed in the 20 months since Henry made the statement. Sure, Price took home a Cy Young trophy as a 26-year old in 2012. But he’s 30 now, and looking at the award voting over the past few years unearths a number of examples of the volatility of the pitcher as a commodity.

Be it injury (Wainwright, Harvey, Jose Fernandez, Yu Darvish, Cliff Lee) or the case of a career going off a cliff (Matt Cain, Justin Verlander, C.C. Sabathia), a pitcher performing at a high level for two or three years, much less seven, is at best a coin flip, and in Clay Buchholz’s case, a series of repeated train crashes.

One can point to Price’s relatively injury-free past, but for comparison, look at Sabathia, a horse for well over a decade until he hit the age of 32. Sure, Sabathia fired a lot of bullets over the years. But when does one’s elbow finally say “uncle?” It’s not always age-related. It just happens.

4. It didn’t have to be this way.

In a parallel universe, the Red Sox might have followed a different blueprint. This year’s World Series competitors provide two examples.

The Mets collected young pitching through the draft (Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Stephen Matz) and via trade (Noah Syndergaard) and patiently waited for it to blossom into a dynamic unit that can single-handedly tip the scales of a playoff series. This stood in stark contrast to their previous approach, which involved things like trading Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano and lavishing $190 million combined for 78 wins from Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez.

But taking the Mets’ approach likely would have meant a string of losing seasons. Wait…

Meanwhile, the Royals made short-term investments in pitching to augment an already-effective offensive attack. Trades for James Shields and Johnny Cueto may not result in the team sticking around at the top of the standings for five more years, but they’re there now, and Kansas City has avoided mortgaging the future, important for a small market group.

Fans of that same Kansas City franchise may dismiss Red Sox fans hesitant to get on board for the David Price Experience. The downside of Price, and his contract, is a pretty person problem. The Sox just happen to be the kind of pretty team that can afford him. They don’t have to be patient, think about the future, or temper the expectations of fans.

Unless they do. It has happened before, and it has been ugly.

Price greatly improves the team’s chances to take the AL East in 2016, but I’m most curious as to what we think of this deal in October and how we look at it a few years down the line.