The David Price Equation

As we’ve talked about a whole bunch of times, the pitching market is at a standstill right now, as teams await a Masahiro Tanaka resolution. Free agents are waiting to maximize the size of their markets, and teams are waiting because they’d prefer not to be reduced to chasing one of the free agents instead of Tanaka. Tanaka, baseball has decided, is much better. Additionally, the trade market is quiet, especially the one for David Price, because while teams do of course see Price as an ace, getting him would require giving up players, and teams are more comfortable just giving up money. So Tanaka is the primary focus.

It stands to reason there could be one more run at Price after Tanaka makes a decision. Every team but one will be left without a new Tanaka on it, and there just aren’t many starters like that available. But where once a Price trade seemed like a foregone conclusion, here’s Buster Olney on Tuesday:

Increasingly, rival executives are convinced that David Price will remain with the Rays for the 2014 season. “Ninety percent chance he stays,” said one rival official. “The [trade] market hasn’t materialized.”

There’s a growing belief David Price isn’t going anywhere. Spring training is right around the corner, and teams haven’t come calling with Wil Myers-like package offers, and the Rays are shaping up to be quite good. Trading Price right now isn’t something they have to do, because they can afford him, and teams increasingly think the Rays will just revisit this another time, after another season’s played out.

But, there’s always a but. Andrew Friedman recently referred to the projected payroll as “unaffordable” and not being sustainable. That’s something people have suspected all along, as the Rays famously struggle to build a strong revenue flow despite all the on-field success. There’s also the fact that Price’s trade value will only go down. At this point, he has two years to go until free agency. As that point draws nearer, teams have less and less reason to pay up big.

There are two main ideas to keep in mind. The first has to do with Price’s trade value. Price will get paid something like $13 million in 2014, and if he’s good again, he’ll get paid more than that in 2015. His performance shouldn’t be expected to get better; at best, you might think he’ll stay the same. Trade value generally follows surplus value. Surplus value is the difference between what a guy gets paid and what a guy is worth on the open market. Price’s 2014 projects to have more surplus value than his 2015. Even if you account for the fact that trading for Price gives you exclusive negotiating rights prior to free agency, it’s clear that Price’s value would take a beating over a year, even were he to remain highly effective. It could even drop by roughly half. Teams don’t pay out the nose for one year of a good but fairly expensive starter.

And then, naturally, you have to consider the risk that Price gets worse. This is how it is when projecting into the future with pitchers. Price had that arm injury that put him on the DL, and he stopped throwing as hard as he used to. He still looks pretty safe, but if something did happen, his value could be reduced to tatters. The Rays need to evaluate Price’s current trade value, and they need to evaluate the difference between that and his projected trade value in the future. Whatever they come up with would be pretty substantial.

The second idea has to do with the Rays right now. If the Rays were dreadful, the math would be easier, and a trade would be easier to stomach. But the Rays aren’t dreadful — the Rays are an American League Wild Card favorite, and right now they’re the team most likely to push the Red Sox in the East. There are competing short-term and long-term interests, as there always are with the Rays, and that’s why this is so complicated.

Here’s a neat thing: trading Price would by no means cripple the Rays’ 2014 chances. This isn’t a choice between going for it now and going for it later. That’s way too dramatic. The Rays could trade Price and still advance to the World Series. At the moment, we have them projected for a better WAR than everyone in the AL besides the Red Sox and Tigers. That’s driven in large part by the fact that their position players are projected behind only those of the Angels. Price is their best starter, and he’s a good deal better than would-be replacements like Jake Odorizzi and Alex Colome, but taking out Price takes out about three projected wins. That’s three, not 30. Subtract three wins from the Rays and they’re still very much active, dangerous contenders.

The flip side of that, though, is the familiar win-curve argument, where the Rays are in one of those volatile positions where every individual win makes a big difference. So while three wins are just three wins, those three wins are critically important to a team in the Rays’ projected position. Teams like this are supposed to be making little upgrades to bolster depth and fill as many holes as possible. They’re not supposed to be subtracting stars, and when the Rays have moved quality starters in the past, they’ve had more depth than they do now. Odorizzi’s all right, but he’s a project. There’d be nothing dependable behind him.

So the equation is this: the Rays need to calculate the (negative) value of losing Price for 2014. Call that X. They need to calculate the difference between his trade value and his projected trade value in about a year. Call that Y. Obviously, the Rays want the best return they can get, but they need to try to minimize X, which would all but require the addition of big-league-ready players. If an offer presents itself such that |Y| > |X|, it’s on the Rays to make the move. If such an offer doesn’t present itself, the Rays would do well to hang on and hope. There’s real value to be gained by having Price for 2014, as the Rays are exactly the kind of team that needs a player like that most.

I can’t really go any deeper than that, since I don’t know the kinds of offers the Rays have received, and might receive soon. What they might prioritize is getting back a young starter and/or a young position player at a position of some immediate need or use. The more the Rays can get that can help them right away, the less it’ll hurt to move forward without Price in the rotation. It would diminish the loss in projected WAR. What makes things complicated is that everyone is beginning to more highly value young, cost-controlled big leaguers and near-big-leaguers, and it’s not always wise to move those guys for shorter-term pieces. The Rays might look for a team with a surplus somewhere. Alternatively, they could try to commit savings to the remaining free-agent market, not that there’s a lot of cheap talent left. They don’t have the money to, for example, sign both Kendrys Morales and Chris Capuano. Price would save them about $13 million in projected salary, but without Price, they probably wouldn’t spend that whole $13 million, given the “unaffordable” remark.

It’s a fascinating situation in which the Rays find themselves, as an immediate contender looking to sell. It didn’t give them much trouble when it came to trading James Shields, but the market is different these days and there doesn’t seem to be another Wil Myers out there. We’ll just have to see how the market re-forms in the hours and days and weeks post-Tanaka, and the Rays might still come away with something lopsided, but failing that, they could be forced to make an exceptionally difficult call. There’s not another team in baseball that has to deal with these kinds of issues.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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