The Boston Red Sox signed left-handed pitcher David Price to a seven-year, $217 million contract, tying him with his former teammate Miguel Cabrera for the richest deal by average annual value (AAV) in MLB history. This deal is the biggest given to any pitcher in history. Its payout will give Price $30 million dollars in each of the next three years, $31 million the fourth year, and $32 million his last three seasons, with the opportunity to opt out after making $90 million in three years. That opt-out looks pretty smart on Price’s part too, as it worked for Zack Greinke, and now Price will be earning more than Clayton Kershaw, who will most likely go down as one of the best pitchers of all time, so obviously the market is continuing to grow and Price could get even more in three years if he produces in Boston.
This deal was smart by Price, but the real question is whether it makes any sense for the Red Sox. Sure, Dave Dombrowski needed to make a splash and did so far, but is it really going to be worth possibly paying Price $32 million dollars when he’s 35, 36, and 37 years old?
First off, it’s easy to see that the Red Sox overpaid a little to get Price. Price is a really good pitcher, an ace, and probably one of the top 10 best pitchers in today’s game, but let’s run him under the average cost of a win on the free agent market. The average cost is going to benefit the Red Sox here too because higher contracts skew the average up. In the 2013/14 and 2014/15 offseasons, free agents were given around $7 million per win above replacement (WAR) according to the math from sites like FanGraphs and Hardball Times. Price broke out as an elite pitcher at age 24 in 2010 and has averaged a 4.6 WAR since. This puts his contract as a good deal for now, but even with the inflation the market will see, Price is going to age — it happened to Derek Jeter, Peyton Manning, and Kobe Bryant, and until recently and they all looked like immortals.
As FanGraphs has studied, a pitcher doesn’t age in a very consistent manner, unlike hitters who in most cases follow a decent aging curve. It all depends on how the pitcher deals with losing velocity, injuries, etc. If Price can stay healthy and make adjustments, like mixing his pitches up better and using them in more situations as his fastball loses velocity, he will age better. So right now, for a big name this contract doesn’t look bad, but if he ages like Johan Santana after his big contract, or like C.C. Sabathia, who is the better comp since he stayed healthy, the Red Sox are going to be in trouble and stuck paying Price $32 million when he is struggling in the late stages of his career.
So yes, it’s entirely possible that Price will live up to the deal the first three years, but if 1.0 WAR is worth a little north of $7 million, Price will have to get 30 WAR over the life of his seven-year deal. He is already 30 years old and has amassed 29.2 WAR in his first eight years in the majors, so 30 over the next seven post-prime years seems a bit unrealistic.
Second, the Red Sox need starting pitching, and they need an ace. Nobody is arguing that, but who is the number two behind Price? The Red Sox next best pitcher is Rick Porcello, who is a number-four starter by his numbers most years and due to make a lot of money himself in the upcoming years. The Red Sox are rich but it’s hard seeing them making another splash for starting pitching now. As you may recall, the Tigers had Price and pretty much nobody else last season when it came to starting pitching from April until July. The Tigers were forced to sell Price, in the midst of 2.53 ERA, 3.06 FIP, 1.11 WHIP and 8.5 K/9 season in which he finished second in the Cy Young race. The Tigers had to do this because other than when Price pitched, they were not winning games, in large part due to the fact that those games were started by the likes of Alfredo Simon, career-worst-year Anibal Sanchez, coming-off-serious-injury Justin Verlander, and a combination of rookies and young starters with small potential.
The Tigers had Verlander step up around the time Price was traded and pitch very well, but they still only had one good pitcher and fell to the same issue in the last two months too. The Tigers had the worst ERA in the AL last year, but guess what team was second to last? The Boston Red Sox.
My point here is that David Price is a boost to this rotation, you won’t see me disagree with you on that, but the Red Sox need at least two more starting pitchers this offseason, and now they don’t have the money to get them. The Tigers found a legitimate number-two starter in Jordan Zimmermann not even a week ago; they have already helped their rotation too, but for much less money. This means the Tigers still have money to spend to get another starter and fix other weaknesses. The Red Sox probably can’t go out and even get a solid starter like Mike Leake now, unless they can find a way to unload Hanley Ramirez and/or Pablo Sandoval’s contracts, which seems very unlikely to me at this point.
The Red Sox have a great young core with Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Rusney Castillo, but they still are not contenders even though they’ve added Price and the best closer in baseball, Craig Kimbrel. They still probably won’t compete in 2016 unless more pieces are added. One player, or two in this case, can only do so much, especially when these guys will be combining to pitch just 10-12 innings combined on your average week.
So no, I don’t think the Price deal will be disaster for the Red Sox, much like the Angels’ big contract to Albert Pujols isn’t killing them, but the Angels only made the playoffs once in Pujols’ first four seasons in Anaheim, and now he’s going to be 36 and won’t be as big a contributor to the Angels playoff runs if they make it, like he once was. Pujols has done a pretty good job as an Angel, but his production never matched his St. Louis production and now it probably never will.
Price is a pitcher so you can’t compare these guys, but the idea behind this is the same. The Red Sox probably are two years away from competing, and yes Price should still be a top pitcher next year, but when the Red Sox really need him, will he just be an overpaid superstar? The answer is that we have to watch, because even if Price went against all the odds and pitched well into his late 30s, the Red Sox would need to put a good team around him, and there are factors that go into that too (like the money crunch I discussed above, or prospects working out/not working out).
One last thing is Price’s postseason struggles, which is probably most Red Sox fans’ biggest concern with this signing. For that I tell you guys to ignore it — the sample size is way too small. Price gave up three runs in relief this year, a role he hadn’t been in since 2008, so it’s not surprising that he struggled. I’ve also seen Price deal in a postseason game very recently; last year when he was with the Tigers he lost a playoff game in which he only gave up two runs. When worrying about anything, go with the bigger sample size, and Price will be great in most outings, postseason included. For now though, this deal just looks like it’s paying a superstar good money but with a minimal chance at accomplishing the ultimate goal of winning a World Series with their ace, David Price.