The Price for David Price

The hot stove raging inferno season has included a lot of activity so far, but despite all the moves and the rumored moves, there hadn’t been a lot of reported activity around the winter’s biggest trade chip, at least until last night. That’s when Jeff Passan reported that talks with Tampa Bay about acquiring David Price were expected to heat up soon, naming the Mariners, Dodgers, Angels, Rangers, Pirates, Diamondbacks, and Blue Jays among interested teams. But the more interesting part of the story was this:

The 28-year-old Price immediately would be the most sought-after name on the trade market, and teams expect him to net a far bigger package than the Wil Myers-headlined deal Tampa Bay received from Kansas City last season. Despite the potential for $30 million in salary over the next two seasons before he hits free agency after 2015, Price is a rare commodity – an available ace – that is drawing interest accordingly.

The Wil Myers deal was one of the worst overpays in trade in recent history, and Passan is suggesting that people are expecting the Rays to land a “far bigger package than the Myers-headlined deal” for David Price. Suffice it to say that I don’t think teams should view egregious overpays as market-setting preedents, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to base their offer for Price on analysis that goes something like “Shields got Myers, and Price is better than Shields, so Price should cost more than Myers.” So let’s talk about what Price should return in trade.

Projecting Price’s value is actually relatively simple. By FIP-based WAR, he’s been worth +13.5 wins over the last three years, or an average of +4.5 WAR per season. By runs allowed, he’s at +14.2 wins over the same time frame, or an average of +4.7 WAR per season. And by FIP, it’s been a very consistent three year run, as he’s been no lower than +4.3 and no higher than +4.8. David Price has roughly established himself as a +4.5 WAR pitcher, and heading into his age-28 season, there’s no huge reason to think he’s going to diverge from that path any time soon.

So, for the next two years, it’s fair to expect Price to produce something like +8 or +9 WAR, depending on how much you want to regress for aging and how concerned you are about Price’s velocity and strikeout drops in 2013. Let’s just give Price the benefit of the doubt and call it +9 WAR over the next two years, keeping him at the rate he’s established over the last two years.

Over those same two years, Price is going to earn roughly $30 million in salary via the arbitration, since he was a Super-Two and his Cy Young season helped accelerate his earnings. $30 million for nine projected wins is certainly a pretty great deal, as we’re seeing the market pay something closer to $6 or $7 million per win right now. If Price was a free agent and told teams he would only sign for two years, I think he’d probably end up around $60 million, maybe even $65 million, for those two seasons.

So Price is both pretty expensive and massively underpaid at the same time. Any team acquiring Price is going to be giving up a good chunk of their financial resources, but they’re also going to be getting a guy who is earning half of what he should be making, relative to market prices for elite players. And that — along with either the chance to try and sign him to a long term deal before he reaches free agency — is why Price has a ton of trade value at the moment. He absolutely should command a huge return for the Rays.

But just as Price is a hugely valuable commodity, so are Major League ready young players with 6+ years of team control. Even if they’re unproven, untested prospects, the forecast value of a prospect who could be reasonably expected to contribute at the big league level in 2014 is even higher than Price’s value.

Let’s just use Gregory Polanco as an exmaple, for instance. The Pirates are one of the teams that has been linked to Price, and as a team on the bubble of contention, they’re in a position to make a future-for-present trade and have it work out, given that the added value of current wins in their situation is extremely high. Polanco is the kind of prospect that could be viewed as a Wil Myers type, an impact outfielder with tools and performance, and not too far from being big league ready. He will likely rate in the top 10 on most prospect lists this winter, just as Myers did last year.

Polanco could probably help the Pirates win in 2014. Steamer projects him as a roughly league average hitter next year, and as a toolsy center fielder who is blocked by Andrew McCutchen, he’d likely rate as a premium defender in a corner outfield spot, racking up significant value with his glove as well. Some 2013 comparisons for his expected performance, based on average hitting and some defensive value:

Andy Dirks: 484 PA, 89 wRC+, +0 BSR, +5 DEF, +1.7 WAR
David DeJesus: 439 PA, 102 wRC+, +1 BSR, +4 DEF, +2.0 WAR
Leonys Martin: 508 PA, 87 wRC+, +6 BSR, +10 DEF, +2.7 WAR
Gregor Blanco: 511 PA, 99 wRC+, +1 BSR, +10 DEF, +2.8 WAR
Denard Span: 662 PA, 97 wRC+, 2 BSR, +12 DEF, +3.5 WAR

That’s the kind of production you expect from a roughly league average hitter with some speed and defensive value. And this isn’t just wishcasting either, as Dan Szymborski recently gave a preview of what ZIPS forecasts for Polanco on Twitter:

ZIPS sees Polanco as nearly a +3 WAR player in 2014. Steamer’s at +1.2 per 600 PA (mostly on the basis of projecting Polanco as an average defender), so even if we just split the difference and call Polanco a +2 WAR player in 2014, that would give us something like this expected value over the next six years.

Year WAR Salary Value Net
2014 2.0 500,000 $12,000,000 $11,500,000
2015 2.3 500,000 $14,950,000 $14,450,000
2016 2.6 500,000 $18,200,000 $17,700,000
2017 2.9 5,000,000 $21,750,000 $16,750,000
2018 3.2 10,000,000 $25,600,000 $15,600,000
2019 3.5 15,000,000 $29,750,000 $14,750,000
Total 16.5 31,500,000 122,250,000 $90,750,000

There’s obviously a lot of assumptions in there that may or may not be true. I started the value of a win at $6 million apiece and inflated it by $500,000 each winter. I bumped Polanco up +0.3 WAR per season from age 22-27, and then I gave him $5 million raises each time through arbitration. You can quibble with any of these assumptions, so this isn’t to be taken as gospel.

But look at that bottom right hand number. If we think Polanco is a league average player now, and will improve into a minor star by the time he’s at his physical peak, he’d be projected to produce about $91 million more than what he’d be paid over the next six years. This forecast has Gregory Polanco as a $91 million asset, or about three times as valuable as David Price. Even if you just focus on the next two seasons, this would suggest that Polanco is a $26 million asset in 2014/2015, almost nearly equal in surplus value to Price by himself.

Now, you might quibble with the idea that two years of a league average player making the league minimum is of near equal value to a two years of a #1 starter making $15 million per year, but the gap is so large that you can adjust the numbers however you want and Polanco is still going to come out as a bigger asset. Even if you cut the value of Polanco’s wins down to $3 million apiece now — based on the David Murphy/David DeJesus signings — and redid the calculation, you’d still come out with Polanco as a $40 million asset over the next six years. And that’s without factoring in the huge upside that Polanco comes with that guys like Murphy/DeJesus do not.

Gregory Polanco, right now, is a more valuable property than David Price. Just like Wil Myers was more valuable than James Shields. A team is better off with a young average big league player making the league minimum than they are with an expensive +4 to +5 win pitcher on a two year commitment. The Pirates should not be interested in putting Polanco in a deal for David Price.

This goes for pretty much every team with a prospect that projects as roughly league average in 2014 and has long term team control remaining. The Rangers should not give up Jurickson Profar for David Price. The Mariners should not give up Taijuan Walker for David Price. The Diamondbacks should not give up Archie Bradley for David Price.

Guys who are on the cusp of adding value at the big league level are not worth trading for two year rentals of expensive players. You keep those guys, use them to fill holes on your roster, and allocate the salary you saved by not paying a veteran to fill another hole. The prospects that you trade for short term rentals are guys who can’t help you in 2014; guys who need more development, who are not yet big league ready, or if they are, aren’t likely to turn into any kind of star. Trading high ceiling future stars who are already able to contribute value in the short term is just bad business.

Low level high ceiling guys? Sure, David Price is worth that and more. Big league ready guys with limited long term value? Yeah, add them too. Price is absolutely worth giving up potential long term value for, and he’s worth giving up short term fill-ins, but he’s not worth players who could start for you next year and turn into franchise building blocks by the time Price is hitting free agency.

The Wil Myers trade should not set the market for David Price any more than the Doug Fister trade should. One was an awful overpay, one was an amazing underpay; Price should bring back something in between those two deals. He has a lot of value, but two years of an expensive ace is not worth a big league ready contributor with star potential. Those are the guys you keep and build around, not cash in for a short term improvement that isn’t actually that much of an improvement once you account for the cost of paying Price’s salary as well.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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