After a winter’s worth of speculation, the Red Sox have traded megastar Mookie Betts to the Dodgers. The 27-year-old outfielder is the second-best position player in baseball, behind Mike Trout, and was Boston’s best position player since Carl Yastrzemski. Betts took home AL MVP honors in 2018—the same year that the Red Sox won 108 games, the World Series, and recorded probably the best single-season team performance of the 21st century.
Yet not only was Boston seemingly unwilling to pay a suitable salary to keep Betts around for the future, the team was also opposed to shelling out the $27 million attached to his final arbitration year. So, as the Red Sox try to get under the $208 million competitive balance tax threshold for this coming season—a figure they were previously on track to exceed by some $25 million—the team traded Betts.
Ditching Betts is the greatest folly in Boston sports since the last time Brad Marchand was allowed out in public. But the diminutive outfielder is not the only Boston star on the move: David Price has also found himself rolled into the package deal.
The Price-Betts package gives L.A. the best offensive one-two punch in the game with Betts and Cody Bellinger, and offers a ready-made replacement for departed veteran left-handers Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu. But Price’s addition to this deal isn’t a case of a trade snowballing during negotiations, like the Louisiana Purchase, which came about after the fledgling United States expressed interest in purchasing only the city of New Orleans. (Though considering the cost of the Louisiana Territory, we’d probably be speaking French in the Midwest right now if Red Sox owner John Henry had been president in 1803.) Price wasn’t on the market so much as “Price and his $32 million salary” was on the market. And that’s more than a little disconcerting.
In December 2015, the Red Sox signed Price to a seven-year, $217 million contract, which was then the richest ever handed out to a pitcher. Price was 30 years old at the time and coming off a monster season that earned him second place in AL Cy Young voting. Like most big free agent deals, it was an accepted risk that he would decline somewhat before the end of his deal, but in the short to medium term, the Sox would have David Goddamn Price at the head of their rotation, and possibly win a World Series because of it.
Sure enough, the Red Sox won three consecutive division titles in Price’s first three years in Boston, capped by a 2018 title run in which Price started and won the clinching games of both the ALCS and World Series. And even though Price has struggled with injuries to his wrist and elbow, forcing him to miss large chunks of the 2017 and 2019 seasons, he’s pitched well when healthy.
Since joining the Red Sox, he has made 98 regular-season starts and five more relief appearances, for a total of 588 innings. He’s struck out 24.9 percent of opponents while walking just 6.4 percent, and allowed an ERA of 3.84. In the past four years, he’s 34th among starting pitchers in bWAR, 30th in ERA+, and 38th in innings. As so-called “bad contracts” go, this is not Albert Pujols or Mike Hampton or Price’s former teammate James Shields. Every team in baseball, without exception, would be better off with Price on the roster than without, including the Dodgers and Red Sox.
The issue for Boston, therefore, was that Price is set to make $32 million in each of the next three seasons. Even now, that’s eye-watering money for a pitcher. Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg are due to make just $36 million and $35 million per year, respectively. Cole, 29, and Strasburg, 31, are both about the same age Price was when he signed his current deal, and both are coming off broadly similar seasons (between six and seven bWAR) to Price’s 2015. Back then, Price’s deal carried the expectation that he would be the best pitcher in baseball. By that lofty standard, he’s fallen short.
Furthermore, Price is now 34 years old, and he’s suffered a barking elbow more recently than he’s put up a 200-inning season (his last came in 2016). It would be even more unreasonable now to expect him to pitch like the young Price—or like Strasburg or Cole.
Even though he’s not a capital-A Ace anymore, Price is still quite a valuable pitcher. You just have to compare his pure on-field numbers to another group of free agent starting pitchers from this past season: mid-rotation guys. In the past three years, Price has been worth 7.8 bWAR and an ERA+ of 122. Madison Bumgarner (8.0 bWAR, 115 ERA+) got five years and $85 million in free agency. Cole Hamels (9.7 bWAR, 117 ERA+), got $18 million on a one-year deal, while Dallas Keuchel (8.8 bWAR, 121 ERA+) signed with the White Sox in December for three years, $55.5 million guaranteed.
Price might not be worth $32 million a year over the next three years, but pitchers with similar track records managed to get between $17 million and $18 million on the free-agent market.
None of those deals will likely end up as the savviest buys. Gio González, for instance, has pitched about as well as Price, Bumgarner, Hamels, and Keuchel in the past few years, but got just $5 million in guaranteed money from the White Sox this offseason. And if I were going to take a flier on a second-tier free agent starter, Hyun-Jin Ryu’s 2019 season blew everyone except Strasburg and Cole out of the water, and the Blue Jays managed to snap him up for just $20 million a year over four years.
But the time for bargain shopping is over. At this point, the best free-agent starter left on the market is probably Andrew Cashner—which is to say, free agency is all but over. And many, if not most, potential contenders still have holes in their rotations.
The Angels are supposedly trying to compete with the Astros, and Dylan Bundy is their no. 3 starter—maybe their no. 2 starter if and when Shohei Ohtani gets hurt again. Last year’s Phillies followed up an incredibly ambitious winter with a monstrously disappointing season when their entire pitching staff went to pot at once; the lesson they apparently took from this experience was that it was a good idea to go into 2020 with a rotation of Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Maybe-Not-Totally-Washed Jake Arrieta, and Maybe-He’ll-Stay-Healthy-and-Finally-Throw-Strikes Vince Velasquez.
Plan A for the White Sox involves handing at least one playoff start to either a rookie or someone returning from serious injury. The Twins, who started poor Randy Dobnak in a playoff game in Yankee Stadium in October, are relying on some combination of Hill, Jhoulys Chacín, and Homer Bailey to be healthy and effective in 2020. There’s a nontrivial chance that Zach Davies is the Padres’ best starting pitcher this season. The list goes on.
Even the Red Sox need a pitcher like Price, because ace Chris Sale is coming off by far the worst season of his career, and after him and Eduardo Rodríguez the rotation thins out rapidly. Now that Price isn’t around to start Game 3 of a potential ALDS, how will Nathan Eovaldi do in his stead? How about Hector Velázquez or Brian Johnson? Well, in that case, Boston would probably be watching the playoffs from home anyway.
When an athlete signs a gigantic contract like Price’s, any injury or regression seems to negate his value entirely. Price has been particularly unlucky in this regard, and not only because he’s a solid mid-rotation starter and not an albatross. Criticism of Price based on his pay carries the implicit assumption that the Red Sox will put the $32 million per year they just gained to better use. The fact that the Sox traded Betts exposes that assumption as an obvious falsehood.
That leaves the Dodgers in an advantageous position, as they’ve acquired a pitcher who could make or break the season for half a dozen of their National League competitors, and they’re able to frame doing so as taking a burden off Boston’s shoulders. It’s a devilishly clever bit of legerdemain, reminiscent of Tom Sawyer “allowing” his friends to whitewash his aunt’s fence. It’s just puzzling, and a little disheartening, that no other team sensed—and seized—this opportunity.