The Boston Red Sox and David Price made history on Tuesday afternoon when they agreed to terms on a seven-year, $217 million contract. The value of the pact is the most ever given to a pitcher and just the eleventh $200-plus million contract in American professional sports history.
Price will earn an average of $31 million over the life of the contract, which ties Miguel Cabrera ($248 million over eight years) for the highest average annual value ever. It’s very possible that Zack Greinke’s next contract will surpass this one in average annual value as soon as this week.
The contract, orchestrated by Dave Dombrowski, who was hired in August, nearly triples the $82.5 million extension the Red Sox gave Rick Porcello in April. That had been the most the franchise had ever given to a pitcher.
Price has an opt-out after three years and none of the money is deferred, which helped Boston swoop in and grab the left-hander away from the St. Louis Cardinals. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported that Price woke up Tuesday morning fully expecting to sign with the Cardinals. The Red Sox, who were also talking with Greinke’s people, reportedly increased their initial offer to at least $30 million more than what the Cardinals had offered, making the decision any easy one for Price.
The Red Sox felt they finished the 2015 season on somewhat of an upswing after an abysmal first half. Boston’s starting rotation had the third-highest ERA (4.39) in the American League and ranked just above the league average in strikeouts. Opposing hitters enjoyed success against the club’s rotation, posting a .264/.323/.410 slash line.
Much was made about the Red Sox entering last season with an ace-less, but deep rotation. The belief was that they had a handful of No. 2 starters, but in reality it was more like several No. 3 or No. 4s. Wade Miley (4.46 ERA), Porcello (4.92) and Joe Kelly (4.82) all struggled mightily. Clay Buchholz was respectable, but made just 18 starts. Eduardo Rodriguez, 22, set the mound on fire when he was called up, but came back down to earth soon after.
Dombrowski may have done the talking, but Red Sox ownership deserves credit for opening their wallets in search of an ace just 18 months after they notoriously low-balled Jon Lester. The Red Sox offered Lester, another left-hander, a four-year, $70 million extension six months before he hit free agency and signed a six-year, $155 million deal with the Chicago Cubs.
Overall, the Red Sox will pay Price an average of $6.2 million more annually than Lester will earn in Chicago. Price is four months younger and has thrown 360 fewer innings than Lester. This past season Price threw 3,338 pitches to Lester’s 3,185.
With an emerging outfield, headlined by Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley, Jr., the Red Sox are ready to make another worst-to-first jump in the AL East, which has seen better days. The New York Yankees remain hesitant to spend money until their high-priced veterans come off the books, the Baltimore Orioles could lose Chris Davis in free agency and the Tampa Bay Rays are on a budget and still rebuilding.
The division looks like a two-horse race between the Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, who are the reigning champs and feature baseball’s best offense. Adding Price alone doesn’t immediately make Boston a playoff contender, but it’s the first step towards a resurgence at Fenway Park.
Slotting Price atop the rotation allows the remainder of the team’s starters to slide into more suitable roles. It’s unlikely they’ll make a playoff run on the strength of their rotation alone, but is no longer a huge weakness.
If the Red Sox go worst-to-first, they’ll need last year’s free agent expenditures to provide more production than they did in 2015. Hanley Ramirez (four years, $88M) and Pablo Sandoval (five years, $95M) were such flops in their first season in Boston that ownership didn’t want to sign anyone to a $100 million contract this offseason. As it turned out, Dombrowski was so confident in Price -- who he traded for while with the Detroit Tigers -- that he convinced his new bosses to spend more than $200 million.
Ramirez and Sandoval combined to contribute -2.2 WAR and missed nearly 100 games this past season.
The immediate returns John Farrell will receive from Price will be much better, but that doesn’t mean the contract is without risk. The 30-year-old posted the lowest ERA (2.45) and FIP (2.78) of his career in 2015, but he’ll be 37 at the end of the deal.
This is where the opt-out comes into play. The Red Sox don’t have control over the situation, but Price can hit the free agent market again after the 2018 season. At that point he’ll be 33 and perhaps in line for an even larger and longer payday. With that said, Price has been pitching at the Major League level since shortly after his 23rd birthday. He’ll be a veteran of 11 seasons when he has the option of voiding the final four years of his contract.
Will he still be a perennial Cy Young candidate?
Will the market further inflate enough that even a less effective Price can earn more money?
What will Boston’s preference be at that point?
It’s impossible to answer those questions four months before Price even throws his first pitch for the franchise.
Grade for Red Sox: B
The presence of some long-term financial risk is the only legitimate reason not to grade the Red Sox higher for signing Price. He’s reliable, a workhouse, a leader in the clubhouse and has a lot of experience in both the postseason and AL East.
If Boston makes a deep playoff run on the strength of a handful of dominant starts by their unquestioned ace, they will gladly pay him nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.
Detractors will point to Price’s postseason numbers as a red flag -- 5.12 ERA in 63.1 playoff innings -- but if you look deeper his numbers aren’t quite as troubling. He has a 4.92 K/BB ratio in the playoffs, substantially better than his regular season rate. He has had issues allowing home runs when it counts most, but eight starts (and six relief appearances) isn’t a huge sample size.
Clayton Kershaw has a 4.59 ERA in 64.2 playoff innings and also seen his home run rate increase in October. Kershaw signed a very similar contract with the Dodgers two years ago without a strong playoff resume. Price’s struggles have yet to become a national narrative, but that will change quickly in media-crazed Boston.
You need an ace like Kershaw or Price just to get to the postseason and you’d be hard-pressed to find a general manager that wouldn’t enjoy the ride and then smile while sending him out to the mound in a win-or-take all game.
Grade for Price: B+
Price could have made things easier on himself by signing with a National League team, but he has a history of success in the AL East and got himself at least $30 million more by picking the Sox over the Redbirds.
There is also no guarantee that Price will be in playoff contention annually. The Red Sox are coming off a 78-win season and there are some question marks on the roster. He can’t win a pennant by himself.
Signing with the Cardinals would have brought him closer to his native Tennessee and put him in a much more stable environment. Sure, the Red Sox have won three championships in the last 12 years, but they’ve also missed the playoffs six times and finished in last place three times over that stretch.
St. Louis, meanwhile, has won two titles since 2004 and missed the dance just three times and had only one losing season.
Dombrowski told the media Wednesday that the Red Sox are likely done making “major moves,” but that doesn’t mean some tinkering won’t be done in the coming weeks and months. He solved one other major problem (the back end of the bullpen) by trading for Craig Kimbrel last month and they still have the young players to make a trade focused on winning in 2016.
Ben Cherington built and massaged the farm system into an extremely valuable one, but Dombrowski has a history of moving such players for proven Major League talent. If he wants to make sure the three guaranteed years in Price’s contract are a success, it wouldn’t hurt to mortgage some (more?) of the future for a better chance at contention in the next few Octobers.