Let me preface all this by saying the following to the Tampa Bay Rays: Alright, I get where you’re coming from.

But still…I don’t know, guys. What you seem to be getting at is a risky play.

This, naturally, is about David Price. The star lefty hasn’t been traded yet, but the day has featured some whispering about his situation.

Here’s what ESPN’s Buster Olney noted in his daily Insider column:

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.’

So it goes. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com wrote in December that the Rays seemed to be “wholly unimpressed” by the offers they were getting. Also in December, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times wrote that the club’s intentions were in a holding pattern: Willing to listen, but in no hurry to deal.

And I’m not so sure that’s what’s best for the Rays.

Listen, the incentive for the Rays to hold on to Price is still there. They’re looking to contend in 2014. Price owns a 3.02 ERA in over 800 innings pitched over the last four seasons. Ergo, dear Watson, Price’s track record says he can help the Rays contend.

Also, Price is still under Tampa Bay’s control through 2015. He’ll be expensive in 2014, but not too expensive. It’s not like the Rays will have to put him out on the curb with a “FREE!” sticker on him if they can’t get a good offer.

And yet, I’d be more supportive of the Rays keeping a vice-like grip on Price if there was little risk of his value being lower the next time they’re looking to trade him than it is now.

Thing is, I wouldn’t characterize that risk as little.

We’re going to talk a bit now about Price’s 2013 season, and we’re going to start by breaking it up into two halves: prearm injury and post-arm injury.

We can make it simple by focusing on simple things:

Note: The HR/FB numbers were calculated using data from FanGraphs.

If you’re looking strictly at ERA, one of these halves was clearly better than the other. After posting a 2.56 ERA in 2012, Price was basically himself in his last 18 starts.

It wasn’t because he suddenly got a lot more overpowering, however. Price’s K% remained in the low 20s, disappointing stuff in light of his 24.5 K% from 2012. What changed was that Price’s already outstanding command got even better, and balls hit in play went for outs and stayed in the park more consistently.

Price deserves credit for the first thing. But the other thing? Maybe not so much.

The best way for pitchers to get batted balls to go for outs is to induce ground balls. Price did that better than ever in 2012 with a career-high 53.1 GB%. Alas, Price’s GB% actually dropped from 48.8 before his injury to 43.2 after his injury in 2013. Fewer ground balls typically means fewer easy outs. It certainly means more potential home runs. 

With BABIP and HR/FB, what goes down has been known to come up. I fear that with Price in 2014, doubly so if he’s still having issues missing bats.

It’s a fair bet that he will be if his velocity doesn’t make a recovery. Per Brooks Baseball, here’s what happened with Price’s hard stuff in 2013:

Price lost about two miles per hour off both his four-seamer and sinker, and a mile per hour off his cutter. Unsurprisingly, there was more contact and more hits against all three pitches.

The picture isn’t more encouraging if we break things down by what happened before and after Price’s arm injury:

Price’s velocity on his sinker and four-seamer barely budged. His cutter velocity dropped. There was more contact against all three pitches, and it’s fluky that the batting averages against his sinker and cutter dropped like they did.

Before his injury, Price’s sinker boasted a GB/BIP rate of 55.07. It fell to 48.75 after his injury.

Likewise, Price’s cutter boasted a 50.00 GB/BIP rate before his injury. It fell to 36.36 after his injury.

The short version: Price seems like a lucky guy to have succeeded with decreased velocity like he did. Maybe he won’t be so lucky in 2014. And maybe—Eek!—his velocity will decline even more. 

Now, OK, sure. Price won’t necessarily be doomed to fail without his 2012 velocity. He has superb command, and superb command is a fine complement for lesser velocity. Take a look at Cliff Lee. Maybe Price can be like him.

Even if that is the case, though, you know who notices things like declining velocity? Other teams. And you know who’s going to be wary of pulling off a mega-deal next winter for a guy with declining velocity? Other teams again.

So trading Price now while his velocity, while down, is still respectable and he’s coming off a strong finish? That’s striking while the iron is hot. 

That’s not the only advantage of trading Price now. There’s also the reality that the market for him probably isn’t going to be as strong the next time the Rays are looking to deal, regardless of what Price does in 2014.

We can take it for granted that Price won’t be traded during the season, after all. Contenders aren’t in the habit of trading pieces they need. Even if all Price is doing is eating innings, he’ll be a piece the Rays need.

A deal next winter is the more likely scenario. And one thing next winter’s going to have that this one doesn’t is a good supply of top-of-the-rotation starters.

Here’s a list of starters who are due for free agency after 2014:

  • Clayton Kershaw
  • Max Scherzer
  • James Shields
  • Jon Lester
  • Homer Bailey
  • Justin Masterson

All six of these guys will be in line for multi-year deals if they do end up hitting free agency, and all six are more desirable than the top domestic (i.e. not Masahiro Tanaka) multi-year options that hit this winter’s market: Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza and Ricky Nolasco.

If I had to guess, as many as four or five of the above six will hit free agency. And at this rate, one of those might even be Kershaw.

Right now, the Rays are holding an ace in a winter where aces are hard to come by. If they hold on to Price until next winter, they’ll be holding an ace in a winter where aces could be plentiful. The demand may seem weak this winter, but there’s no way it’ll be stronger next winter.

Oh, and on top of that, the ace the Rays are holding will have only one year of club control left. That will lower Price’s value by default, and that’s without even considering all the icky stuff that went on with him in 2013 that we were discussing a moment ago.

For now, it’s looking like the Rays are going to hold on the Price and take their chances. Once again, I get it.

But I don’t know, guys…


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.


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