When David Price takes the mound Tuesday against the Chicago White Sox, he’ll have a lot riding on his left arm, namely the postseason hopes of the Detroit Tigers, whose trade for the former Cy Young winner initially looked like a coup that would put the organization over the top down the stretch and in the playoffs.

But a funny thing happened on the way to October. Instead of soaring, the Tigers stumbled immediately, going 10-12 in the 22 games following the move.

That allowed the Kansas City Royals to climb from four games back in the AL Central to three up. Entering play Tuesday, Detroit (86-70) is just one game ahead of the Royals (85-71), who haven’t made it to the playoffs since 1985.

Just as unexpected, Price, who was acquired to be part of the World Series solution for a club that has advanced to two AL Championship Series sandwiched around their 2012 trip to the Fall Classic, wound up becoming part of the problem.

Price’s overall numbers with Detroit, including a 4.09 ERA and 1.22 WHIP, aren’t as good as they were with the Tampa Bay Rays. On top of that, the left-hander has been especially bad the past five times out.

Since Aug. 27, the 29-year-old has allowed 20 runs on a whopping 45 hits for a 5.81 ERA and 1.68 WHIP in 31.0 innings. Detroit has lost three of those games.

Among those outings was the unmitigated disaster against the New York Yankees, in which Price was treated like a pinata while permitting—count ’em—nine straight hits and registering nary a swing and miss during an eight-run third inning.

Price called it “probably the worst game I’ve ever had in my life,” according to Bryan Hoch of MLB.com.

And just last Wednesday, Sept. 17, Price caved again, surrendering five runs on eight hits and three walks over 5.2 frames against the lowly Minnesota Twins, only the last-place team in the Central. Not to mention, he lost the lead not once but twice in the game.

“I’m a better pitcher than this,” Price told Patrick Donnelly of MLB.com following that 8-4 loss.

Not exactly how this was supposed to play out when Detroit obtained Price at the July 31 trade deadline in a blockbuster three-team deal that sent left-hander Drew Smyly and infield prospect Willy Adames from the Tigers to the Tampa Bay Rays, center fielder Austin Jackson to the Seattle Mariners and infielder Nick Franklin to the Rays.

As if to make Price’s subpar performance so far sting even more, Smyly pitched wonderfully in seven starts for his new club, posting a 1.70 ERA and 0.76 WHIP before being shut down in early September with the Rays out of contention and looking toward 2015.

It seemed silly at the time of the trade and still does somewhat given Price’s pedigree and history, but it’s fair to at least raise the possibility that the Tigers might have been better off to now if they’d simply stuck with Smyly all along.

Quite possibly, with Smyly starting instead of Price, Detroit would have a larger lead on the Royals right now because the 25-year-old unquestionably has been better than Price since the swap, leading him in ERA, WHIP and Baseball Reference’s version of wins above replacement (WAR)—and not by small margins, either.

Then again, Price’s 2.68 fielding independent pitching (FIP) actually is better than Smyly‘s 3.07 within the same time frame. That speaks to the 2012 Cy Young winner’s poor luck with balls in play (.328 BABIP) and leaving runners stranded (67.7 left-on-base percentage).

All of which is to say that while Price’s performance has left something to be desired, he’s actually not pitching as poorly as some of the surface statistics indicate. He’s also under team control through the 2015 season, so the risk that comes with a two-month rental doesn’t apply.

Plus, Price does have postseason and big-game experience, having thrown 32 October innings across nine games (four starts) since 2008.

On one hand, Price’s 5.06 ERA in the playoffs doesn’t instill much confidence. On the other hand, well, there’s his win-or-go-home Game 163 gem last year:

As for Smyly? The third-year hurler has seven frames on his postseason resume but no starts. In all likelihood, he once again would have been relegated to the bullpen in the playoffs.

If the Tigers ultimately make it to October for the fourth straight season—and they still control their fate—then Price has a chance to wipe the slate clean and make up for his mediocre showing to date.

With a shutdown start or two in a big spot, Price would put all of his early struggles with the Tigers behind him.

And that’s a good possibility, considering this is a pitcher who not only has been among the best in baseball for a handful of seasons now but also has had his share of success in big spots.

“We’re hoping that with the importance of the next couple of starts that [Price] has, the adrenaline helps and he’s like he was earlier,” manager Brad Ausmus told Donnelly after Price’s latest disappointing turn against Minnesota last time out.

Of course, the flip side is Price pitches poorly yet again Tuesday, the Tigers fail to solidify a postseason spot even heading into the final day of the regular season—and you-know-who is lined up to start that game against the Twins in the middle of one of the worst stretches of his seven-year career.

That would be quite the scenario, and not at all the kind the Tigers thought they would have to get through when they landed Price.


Statistics are accurate through Sept. 22 and are courtesy of MLB.comBaseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.


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