The Blue Jays signed an ace, but there is still room to add another big name to their starting rotation
This off-season, the Red Sox appear to be trying to shed payroll (in order to maximize profits, not to better compete). The most obvious candidate to be moved for financial reasons is David Price, given the $96 million remaining on his contract (spread over the next three years) and the fact that his production and health aren’t what they used to be. The newest angle to this story was added by Ken Rosenthal, who wrote on Sunday that the Blue Jays have specifically discussed a trade for Price with the Red Sox.
Now, there are a lot of layers to this situation, best captured by Rosenthal’s colleague at The Athletic, Andrew Stoeten. Ultimately, it might have been more about convincing Scott Boras, Ryu’s agent, that the Jays had other decent options beyond Ryu, in order to get more leverage in negotiations. We’ll likely never know if the Blue Jays-Price angle was relevant to Ryu and Boras’ decision to sign a deal with the Jays.
However, it might actually reflect the fact that the Jays saw Price as a solid Plan B if they had indeed missed out on Ryu. With Ryu now a member of the Blue Jays, one would assume that the Jays would no longer be that interested in adding Price. However, a tweet from TSN’s Scott Mitchell suggests that the Jays may still view adding Price as a possibility this winter.
While the Jays rotation is now much improved over last season, the fact remains that Ryu is the only starter projected by Steamer to crack 2 WAR (even if we assume they each pitch 200 innings). Trading for Price adds a guy projected by Steamer to produce 2.6 WAR next season (3.2 if he pitches 200 innings). It’s not a necessary move, but it is a move that would improve the Jays’ floor and ceiling.
I think the most important point to make when it comes to Price’s production can be generally applied to many formerly elite players: not being elite anymore is different from being bad. From 2010 to 2016, Price’s prime seasons, he produced a 78 FIP-, a mark that ranked 12th among 228 qualified SP. In the three seasons since (2017 to 2019), he produced a 90 FIP-, a mark that ranked 36th among 104 qualified SP. FanGraphs’ FIP- guidelines suggest that while he was “great” from 2010 to 2016, he has more recently been “above average”.
2019 provided a glimpse of what even a diminished Price could do when healthy. Through the end of July, prior to his wrist injury, Price ranked:
•17th in FIP- (75) among 83 SP with at least 100 IP
•13th in K-BB% (21.8%)
•27th in ERA- (80)
•17th in xFIP- (79)
•15th in SIERA (3.75)
•27th in xwOBA (.296)
Arguably, the concern greater than the decline in his performance is his ability to be healthy enough to perform. After cracking 200 IP in six of seven seasons from 2010 to 2016 (and pitching 186.2 innings in the lone outlier season), he has pitched 74.2, 176 and 107.1 innings over the last three seasons. In 2017, elbow issues were a recurring problem. He was fairly healthy in 2018 and the first half of 2019, before having his season ended prematurely by wrist issues caused by a cyst (he’s since had successful surgery to remove it). Price’s durability is ultimately why he is available right now and it’s why interested teams will think carefully about completing any deal.
Curious as to how well a pitcher with Price’s career arc did in his age-34 to -36 seasons, I did some digging to find potential comps. I looked at starting pitchers since 1995 with 1) at least 1500 innings pitched and 25 fWAR over their age-23 to -30 seasons (1656.2 IP and 35.2 fWAR in Price’s case) and 2) no more than 400 innings pitched over their age-31 to -33 seasons (349.1 IP in Price’s case). Three pitchers fit that criteria: Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum and John Lackey.
Santana was a force from his age-23 to -30 seasons (2002 to 2009), producing 37.8 fWAR over 1504.1 innings for the Twins and Mets. His age-31 season started well (3.7 fWAR over 199 IP), before a nasty shoulder injury in September ended his season. He would also miss his age-32 season due to this injury. Returning to open his age-33 season, he was reasonably effective, producing 1.5 fWAR over 117 innings and pitching a no-hitter. Unfortunately, he reinjured his shoulder before his age-34 season and never pitched in the majors again.
In Lincecum’s case, his prime ran from his age-23 to -27 seasons (2007 to 2011), when he produced 25.5 fWAR over 1024 innings for the Giants. While he pitched plenty over the next three seasons (539.2 IP), he was much less effective (2.3 fWAR). In 2015, his age-31 season, he was limited to 76.1 innings (0.3 fWAR). His career ended the next season (38.1 IP, -0.7 fWAR) when he played for the Angels.
Lackey seems like the clearest comp for Price. He was very good during his age-23 to -30 seasons, producing 27.1 fWAR over 1500 innings for the Angels. He signed a free agent deal with the Red Sox heading into his age-31 season (like Price) and pitched two full seasons, before missing his age-33 season (2012) due to Tommy John surgery. During that three year span, he produced 4.4 fWAR over 375 innings. Positively, both for himself and as a comp for Price’s near future, Lackey rebounded well from a very tough injury to sustain in one’s thirties, producing 8.5 fWAR over 605.1 innings. He was even effective in age-37 season, producing 2.9 fWAR over 188.1 innings and helping the young Cubs win a World Series.
As with any set of comps, these are useful more for illustrative purposes than for truly analytical ones. Every person is different. Nevertheless, Lackey offers an example of a recent pitcher who, in his mid-thirties, was able to rekindle a meaningful amount of the success he achieved in his twenties, after dealing with health issues in his early thirties. Any team looking to trade for Price would be hoping for this kind of rebound. Arguably, Price is coming back from a much less impactful injury than Lackey did.
From the Blue Jays’ perspective, the decision comes down to the cost of acquiring wins. The free agent route requires a purely financial cost, which is appealing given the Jays’ massive amounts of payroll space right now. The Ryu deal takes advantage of this. The trade route provides even more options at the moment, but in order to acquire a SP who is both good and has years of control remaining, the Jays would need to give up a meaningful prospect package, which is not ideal at this stage of the rebuild.
David Price offers an interesting hybrid option. He is a pretty good pitcher with three years of control, during which he is owed $96 million. Price’s projected value over those three years is tough to pin down, but it’s definitely less than $96 million. On the high end, we have $54 million, based on his projected production (ZiPS projects him to produce 6 WAR, with above-average performances over about 20 or so starts a season) and a simple WAR-to-salary conversion. The low end is $30 million, based on expectations of the kind of contract he’d currently get. Let’s split the difference and call it $46 million (Mitchell’s guess as to the number that Atkins might accept). That means that his contract has about $50 million worth of “negative” value.
In order to make up for that negative value, FanGraphs highlighted Andrew Benintendi and Eduardo Rodriguez as players with positive surplus value who could be paired with Price in a trade. I’ve also heard Jackie Bradley Jr. mentioned. This approach makes sense if the Red Sox want to shed salary at all costs. If, instead, they want to avoid giving up useful players (or prospects), they could simply offer to pay a meaningful portion of Price’s salary.
Given the Jays’ payroll space, even after the Ryu signing, I think it’s worthwhile for them to pay for as much of Price’s remaining contract as possible, so as to avoid paying any kind of prospect cost and to receive a complementary piece as well.
I have no clue if acquiring Price and Benintendi in one shot is remotely possible, but it would simultaneously bolster the starting rotation and provide the Jays with a potential solution to their need for a proper CF—Benintendi hasn’t seen much action in centre (525 innings), but he has successfully completed 100% of the “routine” plays he’s faced there in his career, as per Inside Edge. Moreover, he’s posted three straight seasons with an xwOBA over .340, suggesting that his bat would play in any stadium, and he’s a productive base runner.
FanGraphs suggests that Price and Benintendi’s combined surplus value would still be somewhat negative if the Red Sox don’t help pay off any of Price’s contract, so the Jays would probably not need to give up a prospect of note to get them if that were the case.
There are so many different ways a Price trade could look like that it is probably best to limit the speculation. Ultimately, if I’m Ross Atkins, I would sign off on a trade involving Price plus cash for a lottery ticket prospect if the Red Sox covered around $50 million of his remaining deal (something Mitchell suggests Atkins would indeed be interested in). I would also sign off on a trade involving Price and Benintendi for a lottery ticket prospect with no cash coming along with them, as Benintendi is worth about $50 million in surplus value.
All of this comes down to just how motivated the Red Sox are to shed payroll. If they’re reasonably motivated, the former option could work. If they’re very motivated, they might even be okay with the latter.
The risks associated with trading for Price should be quite obvious at this point, but they should not lead one to overlook the benefits. While he lacks the long-term upside of a young pitcher with three-plus years of control, he’s a solid pitcher who also has a certain kind of upside that could make this a very good deal for the Jays. More likely, he could end up providing stability, another veteran presence and a Lackey-esque two to three wins above replacement per season, which might be enough reason to make this move.
While all of this speculation might seem outlandish, I think that the signing of Ryu and the Jays’ rumoured $300 million offer to Gerrit Cole should motivate Jays fans to start being more open-minded about the lengths this front office is willing to go in order to improve our beloved team.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.