My Thoughts on David Price and the Mariners
Tonight, both Jeff Passan and Ryan Divish have suggested that the Mariners and Rays have at least had some dialogue about what a deal might look like that would bring David Price to Seattle. David Price is really good. David Price would make the Mariners better. Exciting rumor, right?
Sure, if you only focus on the potential guy coming and not the guys going. Because, as Passan notes, well, just read it:
The Mariners have considered including 21-year-old right-hander Taijuan Walker as part of a deal for Price, sources told Yahoo Sports, knowing he represents the sort of frontline player the Rays would seek in such a trade. Packaging him along with a young middle infielder (Nick Franklin or Brad Miller) and other prospects would constitute a difficult-to-top offer – and give the Mariners a rotation of Price, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the best 1-2-3 in the major leagues.
That’s right, the reported asking price (no pun intended) is a package built around Taijuan Walker. Not just Walker himself, but Walker and more. A couple of days after Doug Fister — who is far closer in value to Price than their reputations would suggest — was traded for a non-elite pitching prospect and a couple of throw-ins, there are now rumblings that the Mariners are looking to make a trade not too dissimilar from the the one the Royals made with the Rays last year, when they sent an elite prospect and stuff to the Rays for James Shields. I’ve compared the Mariners to the Royals more than once, and this kind of rumor only makes it more clear that the team is headed down a very similar path as the one Kansas City traveled a year ago.
I hated the James Shields trade for the Royals, so you probably won’t be too surprised that I don’t love this idea either. Not that I think Taijuan Walker is as valuable as Wil Myers, because there’s a significant difference in value between hitting prospects and pitching prospects, simply due to the significant injury potential that pitchers carry. Walker is a talented kid, but the chance that he flames out is quite high, much higher than it was with Myers or other top offensive prospects. There are plenty of scenarios where trading Walker now is actually selling at the peak of his value, and a totally justifiable decision.
But if you’re going to move a piece like Walker, you have to make sure that it’s absolutely the right move and the right time to make that kind of trade. And I’m not convinced that David Price is the right guy, nor am I convinced that the 2014 Mariners are the right team, for this kind of trade to be worth doing.
Price is an excellent pitcher, one of the very best in baseball. Over the last three years, he’s 8th in WAR (whether you use FIP or RA9) among pitchers, and at his best in 2012, he was as good as Felix Hernandez. He’s worthy of the title of an ace. You absolutely want David Price on your team.
But Major League teams trade for contracts, not players, and while David Price is an excellent player, his contract status makes him somewhat less valuable. He’s under team control for just two more seasons, and because he was a Super-Two player who reached arbitration early, his annual salaries have already gotten pretty pricey. He’s projected to earn approximately $13 million in 2014, and with an expected good season, he’d probably jump up to around $17 or $18 million in 2015. In other words, the two years of control that Price would come with would cost the Mariners roughly $30 million in salary.
Taijuan Walker, meanwhile, will make the league minimum over the next two years, or about $1 million in total. Price is going to cost about $29 million more than Walker over the time that the Mariners would control Price’s rights. That’s $29 million the Mariners wouldn’t have to spend on adding other pieces, and in particular, that’s $29 million the team couldn’t spend to add a starter to Taijuan Walker since they’d be using those resources to replace him instead of build around him.
With that $15 million per year to spend, you could very reasonably assume that the Mariners could sign a pitcher like Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez, and add them to Taijuan Walker. Do you really think Price is dramatically more valuable than Walker and Garza/Jimenez? Sure, you’d have to give more than a two year commitment to either of those starters, but you’d also get more than two years of performance from the free agent hurler, and you’d be retaining six years of Walker’s performance at the same time. Trading Walker for Price isn’t just turning an “unproven prospect” into a “reliable ace”, it’s turning an unproven prospect and currency that could buy you another quality starter into that ace, and then dramatically shortening the window of performance in which the team would control their assets.
For that kind of trade-off to be worth it, the gap between the two would have to be absurdly large. And it really just isn’t.
David Price, for his career, has a 3.19 ERA/3.39 FIP/3.53 xFIP. No matter how you want to evaluate him, you should probably expect an ERA south of 3.50 next year. The Steamer projections suggest 3.44. You could probably argue for something even as low as 3.25. And you’re probably going to expect around 200 innings at that level, which makes Price an extremely valuable piece. That ERA forecast means that, over 200 innings, you’d expect Price to give up somewhere between 72-76 earned runs.
How much of an upgrade over Walker is that? Well, your forecasts for Walker are going to be a little more uncertain, since he doesn’t have Price’s track record. Steamer projects a 4.39 ERA, which seems reasonable to me, but you could probably realistically defend anything between 4.00 and 5.00. If you think Walker is ready to pitch at this level and you’re forecasting a 4.00 ERA, then you’d be expecting him to give up 89 runs over 200 innings; at a 5.00 ERA, you’re looking at 111 runs. So, basically, somewhere between 90 and 110 runs is a reasonable range of expected performance from Walker if he threw 200 innings. He probably wouldn’t, so you’d have to allocate some of those innings to other pitchers, but let’s just keep this simple for now.
At the optimistic end, Walker would be projected to be about 15 runs worse than Price; at the pessimistic end, it’s about 35 runs. In terms of wins, we’re talking roughly a two to four win swing, once you account for the fact that Walker wouldn’t throw as many innings and some of those would be transferred to inferior pitchers. That’s not an insignificant figure, but the Mariners could likely make up a large chunk of that gap by simply giving that same $15 million per year to a pitcher on the free agent market. Just like Price is significantly better than Walker, Garza or Jimenez would be projected as significant improvements over Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer, and whatever other back-end starter candidates you want to pencil into the #5 spot in the rotation right now. And if you add a free agent to the current crop, you still have Ramirez around as depth for when someone inevitably gets hurt; if you trade Walker for Price and slot Ramirez into the #5 spot (because you just blew the $15 million you had allocated for a rotation upgrade), now you’re turning to someone you don’t want in the big leagues whenever anyone misses a start.
Maybe Price/Ramirez/random scrubs is little bit better than Garza/Walker/Ramirez or Jimenez/Walker/Ramirez, but the gap isn’t anywhere near that 15-35 run spread we were talking about earlier. Now we’re talking about maybe a difference of one win — and that’s if you’re kind of down on Walker; if you’re not, it’s not clear that the Price trio is any better — and you’ve cashed in the future value of Walker in order to get that marginal upgrade. Plus all the other stuff the Rays would manage to extract along with Walker to make a Shields-like deal. As Passan noted, the deal probably costs you a guy like Nick Franklin too, and probably doesn’t stop there. By the time you count the value heading out of town, it’s not going to be clear at all that the team is really any better even in 2014 than they would be by just keeping the kids that the Rays would ask for and signing a pitcher instead.
And that’s not even counting the long term value. Sure, maybe you can convince David Price to sign a monstrous contract extension and keep him here beyond 2015, but again, that’s money that could be allocated to other players, other players the team won’t be able to afford because now they’re on the hook for $50 million a year to two pitchers. There’s no question that the future value of having cost-controlled players like Walker, Franklin, and whoever else would go away in the deal is more valuable than the chance to give David Price a huge contract. It’s not even close.
To justify giving up that kind of long term value, you have to get a lot better in the short term in order to make it worth it. There are times to trade present for future, and just push your chips in on the team you have assembled for next year. But replacing Walker with Price (and Price’s salary) wouldn’t really make the Mariners that much better than just keeping Walker and spending his money in other ways, and while the Mariners might like to fancy themselves as a team on the verge of contending, you cannot make a serious argument that they’re anything better than the 10th or 11th best team in the American League right now.
They’re not even close to teams like Boston, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Oakland, or Texas. I’d easily put Anaheim, Kansas City, and Cleveland ahead of them too, and then you have other high variance rosters with talent and flaws, such as New York, Baltimore, and Toronto. If the Mariners sign Robinson Cano, trade for David Price, and then make one other win-now move, maybe you push them ahead of those three and into the group with the Angels/Royals/Indians, but even then, you’re projecting them for something like the 6th-8th best team in the AL. And it would a team heavily reliant on the performances of a few stars, with hardly any depth in case of injury, not too dissimilar from the kinds of rosters that sunk the Angels the last few years.
This isn’t a team that is a small upgrade away from going from almost contender to legit powerhouse. The Mariners should absolutely be trying to get better, but they should be measured in their willingness to trade future for present, because the reality is that even with a few big splashes, their roster in 2014 is probably going to be no better than decent. The Royals tried this exact same thing last year, punting Wil Myers in a desperate attempt to move up their timeline, and they ended up with 86 wins, no playoff berth, and a hole in right field.
Maybe the stars would align for the Mariners and they’d do better than that. It’s possible, but it’s not the kind of outcome the Mariners should expect even if they make a bunch of big splashy moves, and it’s not the kind of sustainable success that the team could count on for years to come.
We saw Bill Bavasi make this same kind of play after the 2007 season. He got tricked into thinking he had a winning team that was closer to contention than it actually was, and decided to turn Adam Jones and stuff into Erik Bedard. Walker is less valuable than Jones was at the time, and Price is better (or at least likely healthier) than Bedard was, but this organization made this same mistake six years ago. It was Bill Bavasi’s final big mistake, and it’s still haunting the Mariners years later as they struggle to find anyone who can play the outfield. Trading Walker and stuff for Price wouldn’t be the same kind of obviously terrible decision that the Bedard trade was, but it’s a tree from the same garden of wrong thinking.
David Price is flashy, just like Robinson Cano is flashy. Getting both would make a lot of news and allow the team to have some pretty excited press conferences. I just don’t think this path would lead to enough wins in 2014 to make the costs of such a pursuit worth it. In the end, I think the flash would fade, and we’d all just be left disappointed that the big bet didn’t work. Again.