The tide is changing at Fenway Park – days before the start of the Winter Meetings, the Red Sox have agreed to sign the top prize on the free agent market.
David Price, whose name has long foreshadowed this day, was arguably the most skilled pitcher on the market. And because signing fellow beast Zack Greinke, who is nearly two years older, would cost a first-round draft pick, the star lefty was universally seen as more valuable.
It is that market status that nets Price the richest contract a pitcher has received in the history of baseball – the Sox will pay him $217 million over seven years. Price also has the right to opt out of his contract after the 2018 season, once again becoming a free agent, for the chance to earn even more.
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For a Red Sox team with so many questions on the mound in 2015, the near future looks very bright. Within weeks of the final out of the World Series, Boston has added one of the game's best starters to top the rotation and one of its best relievers, Craig Kimbrel, to close out games.
The Sox know Price well – drafted first overall when the team in Tampa Bay was still known as the Devil Rays, he came on to the scene in a big way the following season, when a September callup snowballed into a few effective postseason innings en route to a World Series appearance – including a save against his new team. In another five and a half seasons in central Florida, Price was consistently effective, earning the AL Cy Young Award in 2012. The Rays traded him to the Detroit Tigers at the 2014 trade deadline in preparation of this payday. One year later, the Tigers sent him back to the AL East, and he helped take the Toronto Blue Jays to the ALCS.
The price for Price is the largest sum a pitcher has ever received, beating out the seven-year, $215 million extension the Dodgers gave Clayton Kershaw by $2 million. The $31 million average annual value ties the salary Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox' president of baseball operations, gave Miguel Cabrera as the general manager of the Tigers. The deal, reportedly, is mildly back-loaded, with Price due to receive $30 million in each of the first three seasons, $31 million for the fourth, and $32 million for the final three.
While Price exclusively holds the power to terminate the contract after receiving $90 million over three years, the Red Sox may very well have preferred to add that clause. Price will only opt out if he is able to earn more than $127 million over four years – the way contracts are inflating, this is certainly a possibility. But because Price will be 37 at the end of his current deal, Boston may be open to letting him walk at the age of 33.
Of course, if Price should falter in those first three years, the Red Sox are on the hook as he enters his late 30s. So there is a tremendous amount of risk involved.
The team has long been consistent in its opposition to paying big money for pitchers over the age of 30. While this deal signifies an emphatic end to that reluctance, it's not all that surprising. I've written that when the Red Sox fail, the organization will move in a new direction – usually throwing someone under the bus. Before the offseason began, I predicted the Red Sox would add Price for a few reasons – obviously, the dire need for pitching was one, but I've also noted that the hiring of Dombrowski could make it appear outwardly that the ownership group would be eating a little less crow. Not only could they point to Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington as past general managers who neglected to sign top free agent pitchers, but Dombrowski was also the one who traded for Price in 2014.
Looking past the money, you'll find few critics of Price’s game. A workhorse in every sense, in seven full seasons, he has averaged nearly 204 innings pitched. He has struck out 8.6 batters per nine and walked just 2.3, posting a career ERA of 3.09. And he's not trending downward, either – despite splitting his last four seasons between three clubs, he has struck out 8.9 per nine, walked 1.8 per nine, posted an excellent WHIP of 1.087, and kept his ERA at 2.90 – a rate that is not at all fueled by luck, as it is identical to his FIP in that span.
Some people will point to his 5.12 postseason ERA as a reason to hate the signing. I have two words for those people – "sample size." Price has pitched 63.1 postseason innings. His K/9, BB/9 and WHIP all hover around his career rates, with his walk rate actually being significantly better. His home run rate, however, is twice as high, explaining the poor ERA. But the number of homers he's allowed is just one fewer than his number of walks – that is not sustainable. Price’s career home run to fly ball rate is 9 percent. In the postseason, it’s 15 percent. Logically, that should revert.
One interesting result of the signing is that David Ortiz's farewell tour will involve the face of the franchise shifting to a pitcher with whom he has a tumultuous history. En route to the 2013 World Series, Papi accounted for two of those postseason Price homers in an ALDS game – one of which Price accused him of pimping. Price has beaned Ortiz and the two have taken snipes at each other in interviews. But as far as a narrative goes? Players tend to put such on-the-field differences in the past when they become teammates, and Ortiz even said as much on Tuesday.
"No problems. All that's in the past. Now he is my partner," Ortiz said on the radio in the Dominican Republic, according to ESPN. "When a person joins your cause, you must leave the past in the past."
Baseball does not have a salary cap. If the Red Sox surpass the luxury tax threshold, they will have to pay the MLB. But they can set their payroll as high as they want. And the Red Sox have the money. As long as they are willing to spend it on the right players, even if this deal were to go south, fans have no reason to be upset with Price's price.