There's a commonly held idea among smart, sabermetrically-inclined baseball fans that the Rays should trade David Price this offseason. Now, with it becoming increasingly certain that they will not, these well-informed fans conclude that the Rays are taking a serious risk. This article by Zachary D. Rymer, is a good example of that risk-averse point of view. To quote:
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.
Rymer goes on to explain why one might peg Price to diminish his perceived value in the coming year. Basically:
- In 2013, Price's velocity was down from his 2012 (and previous) average.
- In 2013, Price spent time on the disabled list with the first arm injury of his career.
- Before Price went to the disabled list, his strikeout rate was down (to 20%) from its 2012 rate. After he returned, he appeared to improve, but really did so by posting a ridiculously low walk rate and getting good ball-in-play results (luck). His strikeout rate did not rise.
- There will be more high-quality starting pitchers hitting free agency next offseason than there were this offseason, potentially flooding the market.
All of these points are true and I do not deny them, nor do I deny Rymer's conclusion that the Rays are taking on a significant risk by keeping Price for an extra year. I think that this point of view falters, though, in that it only seams to notice one type of risk while ignoring all others.
Using Value is Not Burning Value
To talk intelligently about a trade you need to first establish what is being traded. In Price's case, it's two years of team control, with 2014 costing $14 million (plus $4 million deferred from 2013) and 2015 costing somewhere in the vicinity of $18-$20 million. There's a good chance his production will be worth more than that in each of the two years, and that his total production will exceed his cost by $25-$30 million, with the greater portion of that value coming from 2014.
This means if the Rays hold off trading him until next offseason, their return will be considerably smaller than it would have been this season, but that does not mean that they've lost the value. The goal for a major league team is to win baseball games, make the playoffs, and/or win the world series. You can argue that it was foolish for the Miami Marlins to play their young ace Jose Fernandez (using up one full year of team control), in a rebuilding season when they had almost no chance of making the playoffs. You cannot argue that the Rays, a talented and deep team with a great opportunity to make the playoffs this year, wouldn't benefit from the services of one of the best pitchers in the nation.
If David Price leads Tampa Bay to the playoffs and is then traded for a relatively smaller haul next offseason, nobody here will mind.
But what if David Price falters?
Yes. As Rymer points out, Price is not a sure bet to repeat his superb 2012, or even his injury-marred but still ace-like 2013. If he spends more time on the disabled list this year, or if he loses a few more mph and a few more strikeouts, he could both fail to provide good value on the diamond and completely ruin his potential trade return. That is a risk.
But do you know what's also a risk? Prospects.
Rays fans have been spoiled in recent years by Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings, and so far, Wil Myers. We could be forgiven for thinking that the formula is simple. You get yourself a top offensive prospect, keep him in the minors until the fans scream, promote him, and watch him become a star (or at least a very solid major league contributor). But I'm sure there are a few fans who can still remember another heady time, when Delmon Young was the most exciting prospect in the world.
Said Baseball America, when they ranked him number one overall after the 2005 season (emphasis mine):
Young did nothing in 2005 to argue against the predominant belief that he's the top prospect in the minor leagues. . . . Last season, he would have had a solid shot at capturing the Double-A Southern League triple crown as a teenager had he not been promoted to Triple-A Durham in mid-July. . . . Young was at times a man among boys at the Double-A level, and won the Southern League MVP award despite his early departure. . . . Young packs a punch from the right side of the plate with a powerful and consistent stroke. His knowledge of the strike zone is advanced for his age, and coupled with his bat control allows him to make repeated hard contact. He's strong enough that he doesn't have to pull balls to drive them out of the park. He has average speed but makes things happen in terms of stealing bags and taking the extra base. Defensively, Young has above-average range for right field, plus the arm strength and accuracy to play the position at the major league level. With virtually no chinks in his armor, it's easy to see why managers tabbed him the Southern League's best batting prospect, best power hitter, best outfield arm and most exciting player.
Young got 131 plate appearances in the major leagues, and despite some troubles with the umps, Baseball America was still high on him the following offseason:
He still has the five tools that had made him the best prospect in the game, and he's still just 20. Young excels at the plate because of his hand-eye coordination and his knack for detecting pitching patterns and making adjustments. "He has a quick bat and tremendous reflexes," Durham manager John Tamargo said. "He just puts the good part of the bat on the ball. He's pretty impressive." . . .He gets the most out of his average speed with high success rates on the basepaths (22 for 26 stealing bases) and plus range in the outfield. His arm rates as above average. . . .everyone who has seen him expects him to be a devastating major league hitter for a long time.
Everyone knows what came next. Young almost never walked in the majors, while striking out too much. His expected power rarely showed itself in games, and he was truly awful in the outfield. The Rays did well to trade him to the Twins while his value was still high, but it's fair to say that except for 2010 Young has been one of the worst player in all of baseball to receive regular playing time, every single year of his career.
The point is not that Delmon Young is some special, horrible case, or that Baseball America doesn't do a good job (they do). The point is that the development of prospects, even the very best ones, is difficult to predict. So while playing David Price in 2014 and hoping that he stays healthy and effective might be a risky choice, flipping him for prospects and hoping they become high-quality major league contributors is also a risky choice. Friedman is not weighing risk vs. safety, he's weighing risk vs. risk.
The Market Next Winter
It's true that there will be more desirable starting pitchers next offseason than there were this one. Max Scherzer, James Shields, Jon Lester, Homer Bailey, and Justin Masterson could all be free agents, and while not all of those guys are the pitcher Price is, they will provide alternatives for teams looking for starting pitcher help. They could hypothetically lower the price teams are willing to pay in a trade.
But there's something else that will have changed over the course of the season, regardless of how well Price pitches, that will actually make him far easier to trade—David Price will no longer be as valuable.
Michael's research concluded that the Rays should be looking to receive over $75 million in surplus value from trading Price now. Danny talked to writers from nearly every major-league fanbase and tried to figure out what such a deal would look like. His conclusion? Only a few teams actually have the prospects to make a deal like that work, and even fewer teams are willing to actually pull the trigger. We can conclude from the fact that Price is still a Raythat Andrew Friedman received no offers equivalent to what the Royals paid for James Shields.
Next year will be a different story. If all goes well, Price will have given the Rays something like $15 million of his surplus value, and so the surplus value on the trading block will be down to around $10 million. I don't know know what the package of prospects that commands would look like, but I do know it will be much less impressive. More teams will have the prospects needed to get the deal done, and more teams will be willing to do so. Simply because their trade chip is less impressive, the Rays will find themselves in a seller's market. Think of it this way: If the market is made up of 15 teams, Andrew Friedman is more likely to find one willing to overpay than if the market only has five teams bidding.
I don't know if keeping David Price is the right decision or not, nor do I know what offers were on the table. What I do know is that generally, when Andrew Friedman and I disagree, he's turned out to be right. But while I never idly doubt Frieds and Co., that's not interesting, nor is it what sabermetrics is about. The point of the sabermetric revolution is that there's nothing (other than gross information imbalance) stopping us, in our mother's basement, from doing a better job than a GM in his office way up on a catwalk. So here's my challenge to you all—to evaluate the David Price trade or no-trade from the framework of risk vs. risk.
- When this years PECOTA projections become available, we'll have access to a probabilistic representation of Price's expected performance, that will be our best available assessment of his risk.
- Link each percentile of Price's performance to how it will effect his trade value next winter.
- Construct a similar, percentile-based projection for generic prospects of every type.
- Compare the two sides of the equation, with different types of prospect packages.
- Receive plaudits.