Is Boston breaking David Price?

After two less-than-spectacular rehab starts, it's fair to wonder whether the Red Sox are bringing back David Price too soon. AP Photo/Mary Schwalm

BOSTON -- It was a quiet morning in spring training, the perfect time to run this theory past David Price: If he somehow went undefeated in the regular season but once again lost each of his playoff starts, Boston Red Sox fans would consider his year a failure.

"It's the truth," Price said. "If I don't pitch well in the playoffs, it doesn't matter. I heard everything Porce [Rick Porcello] went through last year [after losing a postseason start], and he was the Cy Young winner, won 22 or however many games he won. It doesn't matter what you do in 162."

And that still very well might be true.

But this was all before Price grabbed his left elbow in early March and jetted to the NFL scouting combine to have two prominent doctors say they would recommend surgery if he was younger, say 22 or 23. It was before the 31-year-old spent three months resting and rehabbing, throwing bullpen sessions and simulated games and growing wary of being asked by reporters, "How do you feel?"

And it was before Price made two laborious minor league rehab starts, driving away from Wednesday night's 3⅔-inning grind at Triple-A Pawtucket in his tank-sized truck without talking to the media.

So, yes, Price still must change the first digit of his 0-8 career postseason record as a starter to win the affection of Red Sox fans. But all of a sudden, there will be considerable intrigue -- and for myriad reasons -- surrounding his regular-season outings, beginning with Monday's Memorial Day matinee in Chicago.

There's some question, given the reviews of talent evaluators who saw him pitch Wednesday night, of whether Price is being rushed back to the mound. But it's in the best interest of the Red Sox and Price that he pitch as well as possible for as long as possible this season. There isn't much sense wasting more bullets in Triple-A either, especially with an elbow that might be more akin than ever to a ticking bomb.

An effective Price is essential to Boston's World Series aspirations. The Red Sox, post-David Ortiz version, are built around Chris Sale, Price and Porcello, a big three that has not yet been together. The No. 5 spot in the rotation has produced a 9.35 ERA, and with knuckleballer Steven Wright out after season-ending knee surgery, even a sub-optimal Price figures to be a more reliable option than Triple-A replacements Brian Johnson, Kyle Kendrick and Hector Velazquez.

But there's something else potentially at play here. If Price proves he's healthy and pitches up to the Cy Young-caliber standard he has set, he might opt out of his seven-year, $217 million contract after next season.

In January, Price told the Boston Globe he intends to stay with the Red Sox for the duration of the original deal, which would take him through his 37th birthday, an age when most pitchers either get injured or see a sharp decline in their performance. But Price also has expressed frustration with the "negativity" of fans and media in Boston, telling the Globe that people here see him strictly as a pitcher, not as a person.

Price is intelligent and thoughtful. He has opinions and perspectives that he isn't shy about sharing. He's charitable, with his Project One Four Foundation dedicated to helping children. And last week, Price and his wife, Tiffany, had their first child, a boy named Xavier.

But while Price often claims to tune out the criticism on social media, sports-talk radio and in the media, he also has noted the vitriol that he sees directed toward him on Twitter. There are times Price can appear sensitive, a trait that doesn't always play well in a market that requires thick skin.

Since 2000, seven of 10 players have taken advantage of an opt-out clause. J.D. Drew, Alex Rodriguez, A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia, Rafael Soriano, Zack Greinke and Yoenis Cespedes chose to opt out and landed even more lucrative deals. Vernon Wells and pitchers James Shields and Scott Kazmir didn't exercise their opt-outs.

If Price believes he can make more money in free agency than the four years and $127 million that will be left on his Red Sox deal, he almost certainly will consider it. As a free agent two years ago, Price had interest from several other teams, including the St. Louis Cardinals. Perhaps they would be interested again.

But if Price has any interest in relocating, the way out is to pitch well -- both in the regular season and the playoffs.