As has been said time and again, Spring Training stats aren’t worth much of anything. From a fan’s perspective, the value of Spring Training is really two-fold. First, baseball is back after a long winter and baseball, any baseball, even meaningless baseball, is very good. Second, while it’s difficult to tell how good any given team is from their spring numbers, one thing you can tell is health. Is the guy on the field? If yes, hooray!
Yesterday David Price threw four shutout innings against mostly Blue Jays backups. He struck out five, walked one, and gave up one single. Good as they are, those results tell us little about how well David Price pitched yesterday or will pitch this season. They do show us that David Price is healthy right now. That’s about the best you can ever say of any pitcher in spring training, but it’s downright vital for the 2018 Red Sox as well as future iterations of the Olde Town Team. Hooray!
The astute reader will note that health represents a marked difference from last season, when Price was unable to throw a pitch during Spring Training and wasn’t able to take the mound in anger for Boston until the very end of May. That is yet another in a line of data points pointing towards the fact that Price’s time with Boston hasn’t been what was hoped when he put pen to paper following a Cy Young-caliber 2015 season split between Detroit and Toronto. Price’s 2016 season, his first in Boston, featured a quantity of innings but perhaps not quite the quality that had been hoped within those innings. Then came 2017 when Price was beset by injuries. The team won 93 games and the division anyway, despite getting just 74.2 innings from Price (with 8.2 of those coming out of the bullpen).
A good thing about Price’s 2017 was that his velocity bumped up to 2015 levels after a step downwards in 2016. Price beats you with stuff and location, so it’s not a huge deal if he’s throwing 92 instead of 95, but obviously 95 gives him a bit more room for error. Yesterday in his first action of 2018, Price was in the low 90s with his fastball but still managed eight swinging strikes in just 55 pitches. Velocity isn’t a concern at this point, just health though, sure, getting outs is better than getting knocked around. That he was on the mound and throwing the ball over the plate is the main thing though.
It’s the main thing because this year’s Red Sox, as impressive as the offense looks to be, is going to rely heavily on starting pitching. Chris Sale sits at the head of the table when it comes to the Sox rotation, but Price isn’t far away. With Drew Pomeranz and Eduardo Rodriguez, the Sox rotation has some upside as well, but both those guys aren’t known as the most durable. So a healthy Price will go a long way towards giving the Sox a step up on the Yankees if the rest of the rotation is doing their job, or just keeping them in the Wild Card hunt if not. If Price and Sale are healthy and give the Sox 400 innings, I don’t see how this team doesn’t make the playoffs.
Which brings us to: the playoffs! We’ve seen just about every type of pitching staff have success in October over the past five seasons. The Royals did it with a strong bullpen and little starting talent. The Indians did it with starting depth and a deftly deployed and hellacious back of the bullpen. The Cubs won with a more standardized pitching rotation and bullpen setup. The point seems to be less how you deploy your talent and more that you have the talent to deploy (and that the talent plays well in the moment). Right now the Red Sox have the talent, with Sale, Price, Pomeranz, and Kimbrel in the ‘pen.
The thing about the way baseball structures its playoffs is that it allows teams to deploy their best players a lot, more so than during the regular season. This is especially so for the pitching staff. Sale and Price can pitch almost every game of a five game series. They can throw more than half the games in a seven game series. That’s an advantage over almost every team in baseball.
Since the moment Price signed his seven-year contract with Boston, it seemed clear that he was going to leave after three seasons. The deal gives him an opt-out after this season, allowing him back on the free agent market at age-32 for yet another massive payday. Price’s opting out would get the Red Sox out from under the remaining four years and $127 million of his deal. The only thing that might stop Price from opting out would be a catastrophic injury of some sort. Beyond that, he’s gone.
Except no, because then came the 2017-2018 baseball off-season. Suppose Price pitches well this season, five wins or so, his best since 2015 in Detroit/Toronto. Is any team going to offer him $127 million? Yu Darvish got $127 million from the Cubs, but he was a year younger than Price, and he’ll have to play two more seasons to get it. Forget the $127 million, Jake Arrieta didn’t even get four years from the Phillies. Teams aren’t giving $30 million per season to pitchers in their early 30s anymore.
Things change of course, and maybe next off-season will be different and teams will open up their vaults for 32 year old pitchers again. But, if you were David Price, would you be willing to turn down the kind of money he has guaranteed to him in order to take that chance?
Unless something changes David Price is going to remain with the Red Sox through his contract. The thing is, that might not be such an awful thing. The money will be bad, but if the Sox get a good pitcher out of it, then they can deal with a bit of an overpay. The question for the Red Sox, at least right now is whether or not Price is healthy. Yesterday he was, and that’s all you can ask of a beautiful spring day.
Photo by Jasen Vinlove — USA TODAY Sports