The steep cost for David Price, frontline starters as trade deadline nears


History indicates contenders trying to acquire a top-tier starting pitcher like David Price will incur a steep cost. (Chris O’Meara/AP)

ON BASEBALL | Even before the season, the brightest, shiniest object in the trade deadline shop figured to be David Price, flamethrower, Cy Young winner, ace of virtually any rotation on which he lands. And yet a more instructive figure this July, as the non-waiver trade approaches, might be the 23-year-old converted catcher who normally mans right field behind Price.

Is there another Wil Myers out there?

Bear with us for a moment.

When the Chicago Cubs dealt veteran right-handers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland on July 4, nearly four full weeks before the non-waiver deadline, the pitching market simultaneously accelerated and tightened. Two of the prime targets – and perhaps the two most attainable — were gone, albeit at the cost of 20-year-old shortstop Addison Russell, listed by Baseball America’s midseason report as the fifth-best prospect in the game. The Athletics, clearly, are going for it.

“They think they have a two-year window,” said one source with knowledge of Oakland’s thinking, “and they don’t think they can afford to waste it.”

By the end of the weekend, the New York Yankees had turned to Arizona’s Brandon McCarthy, not a bad Plan B for a rotation that is without Masahiro Tanaka (placed on the DL Wednesday with elbow soreness), CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda, all injured. Another arm gone.

So the focus turned precisely where it had been even before that flurry of activity: to the left arm of Price, who entered the season with a decidedly uncertain future, one made murkier by the Rays’ unexpectedly slow start. Price makes $14 million this season, and if Tampa so chooses, it could hold onto him for next year, too, for around $20 million – what he’s expected to make in his final year of arbitration.

So a buyer of Price would be on the hook for, say, $26 million over the next season-and-a-half, and their rotation would be injected with a true stud. Price is fourth in the American League in strikeouts per nine innings (10.25), sixth in WHIP (1.09), the league leader in innings pitched and someone who appears to be hitting stride in the summer. Price’s last eight starts have yielded a 2.31 ERA (he was at 4.42 before that) and opponents have hit just .209 and slugged just .336 against him during that stretch.

What contender wouldn’t want that? Given the Rays’ current status – nine games under .500, ahead of only flailing Boston in the AL East – and Price’s intention of testing free agency following the 2015 season, why wouldn’t Tampa pursue a trade?

“It makes sense that they’d deal him – if they think they’re out of it,” said one opposing general manager. “But not many teams are sure they’re out of it.”

On June 10, the Rays lost a 1-0 decision to Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals, dropping to 18 games under .500, 15 games back in the American League East. Since then, they have gone 18-9, pulled within nine games of division-leading Baltimore, and looked more like the franchise that has averaged nearly 92 wins over the past six seasons. That they have done this without Myers (out since late May with a wrist injury) and lefty Matt Moore (who went 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA last season but is out for the year following Tommy John surgery) emphasizes their depth as an organization.

Since the arrival of the second wild-card playoff spot in 2012, reasons for midseason optimism abound in the majors, which makes it so much harder to discern buyers from sellers. On Wednesday morning, five teams in the AL sat in playoff position, with five more within 5 1/2 games. In the NL, five would have spots locked up if the season ended today, and four more are within five games. That’s 19 of 30 teams with not-so-unrealistic chances — and a few more, like Tampa, hoping to scrap within striking distance by the end of July. That would leave two more months to bridge the remaining gap.

So Price’s situation comes down to Tampa’s own evaluation of its outlook not only this year – when they were a preseason favorite to win the division — but also next. More importantly, though, is the cost. Which brings us back to Myers.


Wil Myers came to Tampa as part of a package for James Shields. (Mike Carlson/AP)

On Dec. 9, 2012, the Kansas City Royals — believing, erroneously as it turns out, they were on the brink of contending – shipped a package including Myers to Tampa Bay for then-reliever Wade Davis and veteran right-hander James Shields, who had gone 31-22 with a 3.15 ERA in a workhorse-like 477 innings over the previous two seasons for the Rays. The Royals were largely lampooned for the deal, because they parted with a major league-ready Myers for two years of Shields, who is eligible for free agency this winter.

Shields has been fine (22-13, 3.35 ERA) in his year-and-a-half with Kansas City. Myers won the rookie of the year award last year, and is under Tampa’s control at least through 2019. (Add the fact that 24-year-old right-hander Jake Odorizzi, also included in the Shields trade, is in the Rays’ rotation, and has 109 strikeouts in 94 1/3 innings, and the deal looks more lopsided.)

That deal didn’t come midseason, when teams have less flexibility with their rosters. But it highlights the cost for frontline pitchers, just as Oakland’s parting with Russell does. The Athletics weren’t mocked for giving up Russell because they may already have the best team in the AL — unlike Kansas City when it gave up Myers — and this deal only increases their odds of winning now.

The last July trade for a star pitcher came in 2012, when Milwaukee sent Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The return included the Angels’ top position player prospect, shortstop Jean Segura, then at Class AA. Segura was an all-star last year and is now the starting shortstop on a division leader, while right-handers Johnny Hellweg and Ariel Pena are still in the minors trying to establish themselves.

That was the price for 13 Greinke starts that summer; he was gone that offseason, signing with the Dodgers. Even the Rangers’ deal for the less-accomplished Matt Garza last summer cost them third base prospect Mike Olt, who has struggled mightily this year with the Cubs but is still considered a potential piece of Chicago’s future core.

So, then, the cost for stud starting pitchers in trade: a rookie of the year (Myers), an all-star shortstop (Segura), or the fifth-best prospect in the game (Russell). Whether David Price stays in Tampa for the rest of the summer or ends up on a contender depends in large part on whether there’s another Wil Myers – or better — out there in return.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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