It feels like the old days, with the Red Sox dropping a knee-buckling amount of money to snatch a superstar in his prime. So much for Boston’s brief experiment with (relative) fiscal restraint. But consecutive last-place finishes have a way of trying an owner’s patience, and an elite, durable lefty starter hitting the open market is exactly the sort of thing worth being patient for.
David Price is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Since his first full season in 2010, he ranks top five in just about every important pitching stat, both counting and rate. Despite his postseason struggles—0-7 as a starter, with a 5.27 ERA—he is absolutely an ace, and any team in baseball would be thrilled to have him lead their rotation.
Especially the Red Sox, who haven’t had a true No. 1 since lowballing Jon Lester out of town. Ben Cherington thought he could get by without an ace; the Red Sox’s staff put up one of the worst ERAs in the league the last two years. Enter Dave Dombrowski, who’s never been shy about spending his owner’s money in free agency, and has generally hit on his biggest signings, unlike Cherington. All the pieces were in place for the Red Sox to go hard after Price, and, with a solid young core, to get back to win-now mode. Price-to-Boston shouldn’t have been a surprise.
But the money is. $217 million over seven years is a lot of money, and a lot of years, for a 30-year-old guy, no matter how dependable Price has been and promises to be for some time to come. With an annual salary of $31 million, it’s the most ever paid for a pitcher, and tied with Miguel Cabrera for the highest AAV in baseball. It’s more than the Dodgers or Nationals paid Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer, even though both actually had better statistical track records than Price leading up to their big contracts.
No one should doubt that the Red Sox are going to get their money’s worth from Price over the next handful of seasons; a starter’s prime generally runs through his early 30s, and Price has gradually been weaning himself off his fastball since he came up, meaning he should make the transition away from power guy with ease. It’s after that that things get hinky. In discussing Zack Grienke’s potential contract, ESPN points out that there have been only four truly great seasons from starters 34 and older since 2009, and none of those were repeated. Pitchers have a sell-by date, and if Price doesn’t exercise his opt-out clause after 2018, the Red Sox will have him well past it.
Sports Illustrated put together a pair of projections for Price’s next seven seasons, and ran them by them the roughly agreed-upon dollar value of a win above replacement. There are a lot of variables, but with, as noted, a somewhat aggressive decline built in, this is one potential future for the Red Sox.
Here’s another projection, with one pivotal change. Price has actually gotten better in each of his last three seasons; what if he improves again in 2016 before beginning his decline?
There is very little chance that David Price will objectively justify $217 million over the life of this deal. (In fact, just about the only way the Red Sox get fair value is if he opts out after three years, which would likely mean he had three fantastic years.) But what a player’s worth isn’t just a matter of their WAR. The Red Sox value winning, and getting back into the championship hunt, and talents who can help you do that, like Price, don’t come around every winter. They are a markedly better team today than they were yesterday, and the true worth of that is whatever the market will bear. Boston needed an ace, and they needed one now: given an ultimatum by Zack Grienke, who they were also negotiating with, the Red Sox blew Price away with an offer that was reportedly worth at least $30 million more than what the Cardinals, Price’s second-place suitor, were offering.
Like with just about every superstar contract, the Red Sox are paying for the front-end performance, knowing that the sunk costs might look ugly toward the end of Price’s deal. Just what the Red Sox are able to accomplish in these next few years is what will determine whether this signing pays off.