Is the Price right?

Boston Red Sox fans were left reeling during the week when news broke that pitcher David Price was suffering from pain in his elbow and forearm and was being examined by surgeons. Invariably such news leads to a diagnosis of an elbow injury requiring Tommy John surgery and a year on the sidelines.

In this case, the news turned out to be more positive. Price will rest the elbow for at least 10 days and it seems that he may be able to avoid surgery, although you can expect the Red Sox to take a very cautious approach and that he is more likely than not to miss some time at the start of the regular season.

This comes just one year into Price’s seven-year, $217m contract with Boston. One of the factors behind the huge investment on the Red Sox’s part is that Price has been so durable in his Major League career. Between 2010 and 2016 he has averaged 32 starts and 218 innings per year.

However, like most other stats, you can interpret that in a positive or negative way. Does this consistency make him a strong bet to continue to pitch 200 innings per year, or has the workload taken a toll and increased the risk of him breaking down in future?

The truth is, nobody really knows in any individual case. The sensible approach is to bet on players that have demonstrated a proven ability to stay on the field and hope that continues, rather than expecting a player who has struggled with injuries in the past to suddenly shake-off their sick note status.

Although Red Sox don’t normally like looking towards the New York Yankees, they do provide a recent example that offers cause for optimism.

Masahiro Tanaka cost the Yankees $175m in 2014 (a seven-year contract and a $20m fee to his Japanese club Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles) and he landed on the Disabled List just four months into his Major League career with a partially torn UCL in his pitching elbow. This is the exact injury that normally requires surgery and a lengthy lay-off, but Tanaka went down the rest and rehab route (alongside an injection in the elbow) and has made 55 starts over the past two seasons whilst slightly altering his pitching arsenal to reduce strain on the elbow.

So although the news on Price may feel like it’s just delaying the inevitable surgery, it’s quite possible they’ll still get 170 innings from him (plus a play-off start or two) in 2017 after all. Few Red Sox fans thought that would be the case last Thursday.

Contracts under consideration

More widely, both players demonstrate the calculated gamble teams have to take if they want to commit to long-term deals to sign elite pitchers.

An interesting article was published on Vice Sports last June about insurance in MLB. It includes a quote from the Red Sox’s team chairman Tom Werner that they “have insurance on some players, not all players”. That was in reference to their decision not to insure Pablo Sandoval’s five-year, $95 million contract. I’ve not uncovered any definitive info on whether Price’s contract is covered, and that they would essentially get money back if Price missed significant time. It’s the type of large contract a team would want to get insurance on, but clearly the cost of doing so would be significant.

Jon Heyman’s recent article on FanRag looks at a potential future contract for Bryce Harper (he’s due to become a free agent at the end of the 2018 season, and due to get an absolute boatload of money) and includes the following comment on the potential 2018 free agent class:

“It’s no wonder some teams are lining up for 2018, with Harper and Orioles star Manny Machado at the top of a brilliant free-agent class that also includes Zach Britton, Matt Harvey and many other stars.”

I can’t be the only person who raised an eyebrow at the inclusion of Matt Harvey’s name in that group. There’s no question he has star-level talent, but there’s also no question that he has a troubling injury record, missing all of 2014 due to Tommy John elbow surgery and then the second half of 2016 after having surgery to correct his thoracic outlet syndrome (surgery that involves having a rib removed).

Harvey is making his first Spring Training start today (Sunday) and MLB.TV subscribers can watch that from 18.05 GMT. The buzz around every Harvey start should make every baseball fan (aside from those of the team he is facing on a given day) want him to return to form and fitness. If he can do that over the next two seasons then he will indeed be in line for a big pay-day; however, that’s a very big ‘if’ based on recent history.

Even if there isn’t a recent major injury scare to consider, taking the plunge on a large free agent contract for a pitcher is a risky business.

One of the few signs of trouble that Chicago Cubs reporters have been able to latch onto so far this spring is starting pitcher Jake Arrieta’s impending free agency at the end of this season. The above-referenced Heyman article notes that the Cubs don’t seem minded to extend an offer beyond a four-year contract and that Arrieta likely will be off.

The smart Cubs Front Office probably thinks there are better ways to spend the $200m Arrieta is seeking than on a pitcher who turns 31 tomorrow, although the first-year return on Jason Heyward’s eight-year, $184m contract shows that even multi-year contracts for position players are a risky bet.

The one thing that is certain is that any player can suffer a serious injury, so it’s hard to criticise a player for seeking the biggest guaranteed pay-day whilst they can.

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One Response to Is the Price right?

  1. JohnnyA March 7, 2017 at 2:02 pm #

    If you look at how Price repeatedly performs in post season (poorly), the obvious implication is that he’s wrung out by September and has been overstretched in many of the last few seasons. Eventually something’s got to give.

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