David Price, age 30, starting pitcher. Seven years, $215 million? Price, the 2012 American League Cy Young award winner for the Tampa Bay Rays, seems to be the top free-agent this winter for the Chicago Cubs. There’s no arguing with Price’s pedigree. Despite struggling in the postseason throughout his career, Price is one of the top-five starting pitchers in the entire league, and he fancies a reunion with his former manager, Joe Maddon, according to most reports. That reunion seems inevitable, but should Price really be the top choice for the Cubs?
Down the road in St. Louis, there is another prime free agent named Jason Heyward. Heyward, 26, is hitting free agency for the first time in his six-year career. Having arrived in the Major Leagues at the age of 20, Heyward has gone through his growing pains, batting .227 in his second year in the league while also dealing with injuries. The right fielder rebounded from that down year with a 27-homer campaign in 2012 that also featured 21 steals. It was down again in 2013, as Heyward dealt with injuries again, played only 104 games, and stole only four bases while batting .254. It’s been up again for Heyward over the past two years. He’s been healthy, has stolen 20 bases per year with an OBP over .350. Defense has been the one constant for Heyward, as he has already claimed three Gold Gloves in his short career. At 26, Heyward is set up to receive an eight-year deal that will approach $200 million.
So, which player would actually be the better investment for the Cubs? It’s unlikely Chicago will be able to purchase the services of both. There are more budgetary constraints surrounding the Cubs due to some financial issues surrounding the team’s purchase in 2009 by the Ricketts family. Even though it seems like the Cubs should be playing with the house’s money with all their young superstars under team control, they cannot go crazy with their offseason spending.
Let’s look at Price first. The lefty will be 30 for the entire 2016 season. A seven-year deal will lock up the pitcher’s services through his age-36 season. Price has been an absolute workhorse over the past seven seasons. Only once, in 2013, has he failed to make 30 starts and finish over 200 innings. There are no red flags in his medical, but signing any pitcher to a deal that will expire after his 37th birthday is a gamble on a group of tendons and ligaments continuing to not break down under the immense stress of throwing a baseball 95 miles per hour.
I think Brandon McCarthy said it best.
to be fair, 31 years of use is a lot to ask for from a ligament
— Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) April 27, 2015
The list of aces who have suffered a sharp decline in performance or career-ending injury in their mid-thirties in recent years is quite long — Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, and Cliff Lee. Price may buck the odds, but even his potential teammate with the Cubs, Jon Lester, is already showing signs of slowing down at age 31. The Cubs overpaid Lester, giving him ace money, when he was a two to begin with. By the end of the deal, the Cubs will be lucky if Lester is a three.
Price relies mostly on an assortment of fastballs — four-seam, sinker, and cutter. In 2013, he was throwing his four-seamer and sinker over 96 mph. Now, in 2015, both checked in below 95. Two years have already taken a full tick of velocity from Price. If he’s throwing 92-93 in three years, will he still be as effective? Price does not throw a ton of curveballs, and opponents batted over .250 against his four-seam fastball in 2015. Price still gets a lot of strikeouts with his fastballs and changeup thanks to his ability to generate late movement on his pitches, but he may begin seeing that movement disappear with age. While it’s difficult to put too much stock in Price’s postseason failings, maybe a harder look should be taken before plopping down $200-plus million. If that’s how Price pitches when his arm is worn down from a full regular season, how safe of an investment is his going into his mid-thirties?
Heyward, at age 26, appears to have finally put it together. The Braves rushed him up to The Show at age 20. He was the hometown prospect with a big bat, and gave the Braves a local star. The move made sense at the time, and Heyward did not disappoint as a rookie. The following two years, however, showed he was not truly ready. Heyward was forced to work and readjust to big league pitching. He did.
With the Cardinals last season, Heyward shortened his swing to make contact rather than chase home runs. The Cardinals needed him on base. The move showed Heyward is the type of player who will put his needs behind those of the team. In a park like Wrigley Field, Heyward is a virtual lock to hit 25 homers. Give him another year or two, and the 6’5″, 245-pound beast will be a 30-30 threat. With Dexter Fowler likely to leave, the Cubs could slot Heyward in center between their mediocre defenders in left and right field.
If the Cubs decide to go the Heyward route, a trade could be made to acquire a pitcher a few years younger than Price. Tyson Ross and the San Diego Padres have been viewed as a fit for the Cubs, but things may no longer work out between the two teams. What the Cubs have — a surplus of shortstops and outfielders under the age of 25 — no longer seem like dire needs for the Padres. San Diego got elite prospects at both positions in the Craig Kimbrel trade. Jorge Soler is probably still a good fit for the Padres, as is Javier Baez or Starlin Castro. The Padres are weak all around their infield after all, and will also lose Justin Upton. A Castro-Soler-Ross swap should still be attractive to both sides, but San Diego may view Ross as the building block for their rotation. A.J. Preller is still unpredictable.
Price is still the most likely free-agent signing for the Cubs, but Heyward may be the better long-term option. There are various regression models and sabermetric analyses that will try to predict a pitcher’s performance into his age-35 season. It’s impossible, really. Every arm is different, and every pitcher’s ability to reinvent the wheel as he ages is different. The history does not look incredibly promising, however. Before the Cubs get too deep into the David Price sweepstakes, the front office needs to take a step back and take a long, hard look at Jason Heyward.