While the trade deadline in recent years has proven anticlimactic and at times outright boring, this year is going to be different. This year, the best pitcher moved at the deadline won’t be Jake Peavy or Matt Garza. With no offense intended to either, neither one is a real frontline arm like the crown jewel of this summer’s trade season: Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price.
With the Rays all but officially out of playoff contention — they currently hold just a 1.7 percent chance of reaching the postseason — it’s essentially a guarantee that Price will be moved before the trade deadline. And Price is going to be the best pitcher traded mid-season in years.
Sure, Zack Greinke was dealt from Milwaukee to Anaheim in 2012, but Greinke wasn’t quite at the level that Price has established over the last few years. Not only has he been one of the game’s best pitchers, but Price has done it in the AL East, and while the division might not be what it once was, teams won’t have to worry about whether Price can handle pitching against the best hitters in the American League. Left-handed No. 1 starters don’t hit the market very often, and Price even comes with an extra bonus; he’s not an impending free agent.
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Often, players of this caliber are only traded with a few months to go before they reach free agency. Greinke was shipped from Milwaukee to Anaheim with just a few months left on his contract, for instance, and the mid-summer market is often flooded with rentals who will only be around for half a season. Price, however, won’t be a free agent until after the 2015 season, and so any team acquiring his rights won’t just get him for this playoff race, but for next year as well. And that extra year of team control is going to allow the Rays to ask for the moon.
If a team wants to acquire Price this summer, the Rays are going to demand a king’s ransom in exchange for a year-and-a-half of Price’s services. But there’s a catch, and it’s one of the reasons why the Rays didn’t accept offers they received for Price over the offseason. While the team that acquires him will own his rights for 2015, the arbitration process has ensured that a large percentage of teams wouldn’t be able to afford him next year anyway.
Because of when he was called up to the majors in 2009, Price achieved what is known as "Super Two" status, meaning that he was granted four trips through salary arbitration instead of the customary three years. Qualifying for arbitration a year early allowed him to escalate his salaries more quickly than the normal pitcher, and his paychecks took off after he won the Cy Young in 2012. Price set a record with a $10 million salary for the 2013 season and got a nice raise to $14 million for this year, even after a relatively disappointing season a year ago.
The Rays will likely agree to pick up a chunk of the remaining salary he is owed this year in order to get better prospects in return, so that $14 million salary won’t drive away interested buyers. However, if a team is planning on keeping Price for next year as well, they’d have to wall off $18 million to $20 million of their budget for next season, and it’s a safe bet the low-revenue Rays won’t be picking up any part of that tab.
Owning Price’s rights for 2015 might sound nice in theory, but it’s something like being given the keys to a beautiful new house in Beverly Hills; all the new owner has to do is start making the mortgage payments. Twenty million is still a lot of money to most MLB teams. It’s not that Price isn’t worth $20 million — if he was a free agent, he’d easily get more than that, and certainly for more than just one year — but that a team is going to be expected to pay an absurd price in talent for the right to also make Price one of the game’s most expensive pitchers.
Unfortunately for the Rays, this might not be the best year to be selling an expensive pitcher. The usual big-spending suspects — Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers — are all trailing in their divisions and have less-than-certain playoff odds themselves. While Tampa Bay GM Andrew Friedman might try to pitch the idea that Price is the kind of guy who could push a team into October, the single-elimination wild-card structure takes some of the incentive away from each of these teams to push hard for Price. The Dodgers already have Clayton Kershaw for a winner-take-all game, the Yankees would be just fine handing the ball to Masahiro Tanaka, and the Red Sox would happily put Jon Lester up against anyone in an elimination contest.
To pay through the nose for a guy who likely wouldn’t even pitch in a potential wild-card game is going to be a tough sell. Ideally, the Rays should sell Price to a team with better odds of winning their division, so that the acquiring team can line him up to make two starts in the Division Series.
Look at the teams currently in first place in their divisions. Oakland and Kansas City are annually two of baseball’s lower payroll clubs, and Milwaukee isn’t exactly a big spender either. The Giants already have a bunch of money tied up in their rotation. The Nationals have their own crop of 2015 free agents they need to sort through, and adding another player who will walk after next year could leave them crippled for the future. The Blue Jays are known to be pursuing a starting pitcher, but in-division blockbuster trades are rare, and it’s unlikely that Toronto would want to send the kind of talent to a division rival that Tampa will certainly seek in return for Price.
The Angels are maybe the best fit from a payroll and need perspective, but they’re also the owners of the farm system universally rated the worst in the game. It’s not clear what the Angels could offer the Rays in terms of young talent that would get them interested without subtracting from the big league club. The Tigers could make an interesting option if their rotation continues to struggle, but would they want to add another big arm who isn’t throwing as hard as he used to when they see what Justin Verlander is going through at the moment?
Finding a team that has the right motivation to pay through the nose in talent and also has the financial resources to pay Price’s 2015 salary is a pretty significant challenge. It wouldn’t be too shocking if the eventual solution is that Price gets traded twice; at midseason to a contender who needs to rent an ace, and then again when that contender looks to recoup some of the talent they lost by shipping him to a bigger payroll team over the offseason. A team like the A’s could be perfectly set up to acquire Price for just 2014, and then market him as a trade chip again this winter rather than try to figure out how to fit his 2015 salary in their budget.
While nothing is certain in baseball, David Price should invest in really high quality luggage. He might be moving around a lot before Christmas.