Remember when the Boston Red Sox were going to be fiscally responsible? When they weren't going to hand out nine-figure contracts to pitchers on the wrong side of 30? When they low-balled Jon Lester with a $70 million contract offer?
Well, there's a new sheriff in Boston, and Dave Dombrowski has never had a problem spending other people's money. To nobody's surprise, the Red Sox -- coming off a season in which their rotation ranked 13th in the American League in ERA -- signed David Price to a reported seven-year, $217 million contract. They have their ace.
Before we focus on the money part, let's look at the pitcher. Price is obviously one of the best starters in the majors, with one Cy Young Award and two runner-up finishes. Since his first full season in 2010, he ranks sixth in the majors in Wins Above Replacement, fourth in innings and strikeouts, and third in wins. He has won two ERA titles and has had only one minor injury in his career, when he sat out six weeks because of a sore triceps in 2013. He's 30 years old and arguably coming off his best season.
One potential sign for continued success: In some ways, he has already transitioned from pure power guy to pitcher. In 2010, he threw his fastball 74 percent of the time. While he still throws plenty hard enough, in 2015 he threw his fastball only 49 percent of the time. Along the way, he ditched his slider, added a cutter, kept his curveball and increased his changeup usage from 5 percent to 25 percent.
The negative? His postseason results. He's 0-7 as a starter in his playoff career with a 5.27 ERA. In the regular season, he gives up a home run every 42 at-bats; in the postseason, that jumps to one every 21 at-bats, the primary culprit for that high ERA. And for $217 million, successful regular-season results are terrific, but fans will demand rings. Just ask Clayton Kershaw.
Speaking of which ... Kershaw signed a seven-year extension with the Dodgers before the 2014 season for $215 million. And Price will get more than that. Crazy? Yes, a little bit. Those aren't exactly apple-to-apple contracts, as Kershaw's extension bought out his final season of arbitration, but Price making more than Kershaw shows Boston's unbridled appetite to acquire a No. 1 starter. There had been rumors of Price wanting to sign with a National League team because of a desire to hit. But in the end, as usual, it apparently came down to dollars.
The other difference with the Kershaw contract is that his deal covers ages 26 through 32 (although Kershaw can opt out after 2018). Price's contract will cover ages 30 through 36. In that regard, Price's contract more closely equates to the seven-year, $210 million deal Max Scherzer signed last offseason with the Washington Nationals, a contract that covers the same age span. In his final three years before free agency, Scherzer averaged 5.6 WAR per season (via Baseball-Reference research). In his past three seasons, Price averaged 4.5 WAR per season. (Kershaw, by the way, averaged 6.9 WAR per season in the three years before his extension and has increased that to 7.5 in each of the past two years. This is a nice way of saying Price is great, but he's not Kershaw.)
Considering Scherzer's contract also calls for his 2019 to 2021 salaries to be deferred in future installments, the current value of his contract was actually much less than $210 million. We have to hear the exact details of Price's deal, but compared to the Scherzer deal -- arguably the better pitcher, or at least equal -- the Red Sox overpaid to get Price, in my opinion.
Then again, it's the Red Sox. They're coming off back-to-back last-place finishes in the two seasons after winning the 2013 World Series title. There's so much money in the game, it has to go to somebody. But as front offices have gotten smarter and the post-steroids aging curve normalized with fewer players excelling into their mid-30s, there aren't as many players to give that money to. As this article points out, players' share of revenue since 2003 has dropped by an estimated 13 to 16 percent.
Yes, there's big risk at the end of this contract. In 2015, only 10 of 74 ERA qualifiers (162 or more innings) were 34 or older, a percentage that has remained steady since 2009. As Tony Blengino wrote recently in an ESPN Insider article regarding Zack Greinke's free agency, "How about the quality of those age-34+ seasons? There really are only four truly excellent seasons among the group: Chris Carpenter in 2009, Roy Halladay in 2011, RA Dickey in 2012 and Cliff Lee in 2013."
As we've seen, almost all $100 million-plus contracts to pitchers don't end well: Kevin Brown, Mike Hampton, Johan Santana, Barry Zito, Lee, CC Sabathia, Matt Cain. The early returns on Justin Verlander's $180 million deal haven't been good. We'll see what happens with Scherzer, Lester, Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels and Masahiro Tanaka.
Given that history and the aging trend for pitchers, that places a certain pressure on Price to perform in the first four years of the deal to "earn" his contract. Still, for a team like the Red Sox, it's about the here and now. They'll worry about 2020 in 2020, and even if Price gets injured, they're a franchise -- like the Yankees -- that can eat a bad contract.
Their rotation now stacks up like this:
That looks solid, although we said the same thing last year. Joe Kelly can take his mid-90s fastball to the bullpen; maybe he becomes an elite reliever. Rookies Brian Johnson and Henry Owens, and knuckleballer Steven Wright will be around for depth.
Are the Red Sox now the team to beat in the AL East? Well, we still have a lot of offseason ahead of us, but no, I'll stick with the Blue Jays, who just lost Price but will have Marcus Stroman for a full season. They also brought in J.A. Happ and Jesse Chavez. But that's another discussion. For now: Enjoy your new starter, Boston.