A Heavy Price to Pay: The Anatomy of a Trade Part III

Another part of the dismantling of the Red Sox core that can’t be overlooked is the role of the David Price contract. The Red Sox packaged David Price with Mookie Betts in an attempt to shed a portion of his salary. This, of course, negatively impacted the return that they were able to get from the Dodgers.

In this part, we’ll look at the David Price contract, how it unfolded, and how it ultimately impacted the Mookie trade. 

How We Got Here

The decision to trade Jon Lester proved disastrous long-term for the Sox. Photo by Getty Images

After Jon Lester’s departure from the Red Sox in mid-2014, Boston’s pitching was in a tough place. They still had Clay Buchholz, but his performance was already on the decline. He was also quite injury prone.When Clay was good, he was really good. However, those flashes of brilliance were becoming rarer and rarer.

The Red Sox had traded Lester in July to the Oakland Athletics for Yoenis Cespedes. He would later be flipped to the Tigers in the off-season in exchange for Rick Porcello. The Sox also tried to get Lester back when he hit free agency in the offseason. They ultimately lost him to the Chicago Cubs, who signed him to a six-year, $155 million deal. 

The Red Sox were entering 2014 without an ace – or well, that’s what the fans thought. Red Sox management tried to spin the situation by saying that the Red Sox actually had five aces.

To anyone who even remotely followed the team, this spin was ridiculous and an obvious deflection from management. It was an attempt to hide the failures to secure an actual ace pitcher during the off-season. It was also a deflection for Boston’s inability to retain their homegrown ace, Jon Lester. 

Well – the results were predictable. Pitching was absolutely atrocious. The Red Sox were 14th out of 15 American League teams in Earned Runs (and ERA). They were 10th in hits given up, and 12th in home runs given up. The five aces had been five duds.

The 2015 team finished 78-84, good enough for a last place finish in the American League East. Porcello underperformed in his first year with the Sox, posting a 5.81 ERA in 20 starts before being placed on the injured list with a triceps strain. The only ray of hope was that Porcello’s eight starts after returning saw him post a 3.14 ERA. 

Enter David Price

David Price was supposed to be Boston’s ace. Things did not go according to plan. Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The fans were obviously not happy. Red Sox ownership appeared not to be happy. Ownership had hired Dave Dombrowski in August to take over as President of Baseball Operations, which led to the departure of General Manager Ben Cherington.

In the off-season, Dombrowski went to work to try to rectify the pitching situation. In doing so, he managed to sign 2012 Cy Young Award winner David Price to a seven-year, $217 million contract. Remember that Jon Lester only received six-years and $155 million.

The deal made Price the highest paid pitcher in Major League Baseball history. It was also the largest contract in terms of Average Annual Value (AAV) ever. His deal was more expensive than the recent deals that Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw had signed with the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers, respectively.

Signing Price to rectify the decision to let Lester walk was an incredibly expensive decision. It was one that ultimately cost the Sox in future years. 

Less Than Stellar Returns

Price is a great example of expectations not quite meeting reality. His tenure started off shaky, with Price posting a 4.68 ERA by the end of June. The media justifiably called him out on his poor performance. They rightfully noted that the highest paid pitcher in baseball should actually pitch like such.

He ultimately developed an antagonistic relationship with the Boston media and Red Sox fanbase. He would often take to social media to address criticisms of his performance. Price had gone from the Cy Young runner up in 2015 to not even on the Cy Young radar in 2016.

Price’s performance did turn around in the latter half of the season, and he did ultimately finish with a 3.99 ERA. However, many of his stats showed noticeable regression.

He gave up 227 hits, the most in the American League. He gave up 102 earned runs, an increase from 60 earned runs in 2015. Price’s FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) also increased, so he couldn’t even use bad fielding as an excuse.

To make matters worse (for Price at least), the team had positive indicators that singled him out as a problem. The team won 93 games and the American League East. Rick Porcello had won the Cy Young. Any criticisms of Price’s performance were warranted. 

David Price’s 2016 was such an abysmal trainwreck that it caused Red Sox General Manager Dave Dombrowski to abandon the “David Price as our ace” experiment after just one season. In December, Dombrowski traded prospects Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Luis Alexander Basabe, and Victor Diaz to the White Sox for Chris Sale.

Sale’s acquisition and Porcello’s Cy Young placed the highest paid pitcher in baseball in the position of possibly being the #3 pitcher on his team. From a payroll management perspective, this is a disaster.

Things did not improve in 2017. Price began the season on the injured list, the first of ultimately two stints. His acrimonious relationship with the Boston sports media continued and even intensified. In June, he directly confronted NESN commentator and Baseball Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley on the team plane. This was over comments that Eckersley had made regarding Eduardo Rodriguez’s performance in a recent game.

He also limited his availability to the media and even limited the questions that they could ask him. He said that he wasn’t taking “personal questions” and was only available on the days he pitched. Price returned to the injured list in July and was used in the bullpen in September. Price’s ERA did improve to 3.38, but he only made 11 starts (and 16 total appearances). The David Price trainwreck continued. 

Price had a bit of a redemption arc in 2018, even earning a standing ovation early in the season. During the season, he made 30 starts, posting a 16-7 record and a respectable 3.58 ERA. His relationship with the media seemed to improve, insofar as he didn’t have any notable blowups.

He even won his first career postseason start by defeating the Houston Astros in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. He was also a key part of the team during the 2018 World Series. Redemption arc completed?

That depends upon who you ask. Price did regress in 2019 and posted his worst season in a Red Sox uniform, while also battling a multitude of injuries. In a six-year contract that made Price the highest paid pitcher in baseball when it was signed, Price only somewhat lived up to the contract in one season. Even that is arguable.

He was respectable in 2018, but never a Cy Young contender. During his time in Boston, he never led in any meaningful statistical categories. He pitched like a #2-#3 guy when he needed to not only be a #1, but a perennial Cy Young contender.

He needed to at least win one, maybe even two Cy Youngs to live up to the value of that contract. A good performance in a World Series does not negate his past performance. Leading a team to a World Series was the expectation, not something to be rewarded. Price wasn’t BAD, but he came nowhere close to living up to the deal he received. 

Tough Decisions

Including David Price in the Mookie trade ultimately tanked the returns. Photo by Juan Ocampo/Los Angeles Dodgers

The Sox entered 2020 facing a tough decision. Mookie Betts was insisting on hitting free agency after 2020 and management did not want to risk losing him without getting anything in return. They also wanted to off-load enough of David Price’s salary to get below the luxury tax threshold. 

Even if you accept that trading Betts was an inevitability because of the aforementioned structural issues (after all, they retained the positional core of 2018 and missed the 2019 playoffs because of bad pitching), the need to include Price definitely reduced the return. Trading a generational star like Mookie Betts should not be done lightly. Especially without getting a haul back that almost guarantees that your window of contention will inevitably open again.

Management may have dug the hole that made trading Mookie a real possibility, but David Price helped them dig the hole even deeper. The Sox wanted to off-load a significant portion of that contract and needed a vehicle through which to do so. Packaging him with a generational talent is an easy way to achieve that goal. 

When the Red Sox traded Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers, they received Alex Verdugo, Connor Wong, and Jeter Downs. Verdugo is a respectable starting outfielder and Wong might be a respectful backup catcher.

Downs was recently designated for assignment and picked up by the Washington Nationals off of waivers. There is no reality in which trading Mookie Betts should get you an average outfielder, possibly backup catcher, and a prospect that ultimately washes out. 

The best comparison for the Betts trade is likely Juan Soto. Soto was traded from the Washington Nationals to the San Diego Padres in July. The return was C. J. Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, Robert Hassell, James Wood, Jarlin Susana, and Luke Voit.

The Soto return may have been made sweeter by the inclusion of Josh Bell (who the Padres let walk to the Guardians in the offseason). However, this is a haul that has the potential to reopen the Nationals’s window of contention within the next five seasons. Baseball America had ranked Abrams, Hassell, Wood, Susana as the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 10th best prospects in the Padres system, respectively.

The Nationals had even used their trades of Trea Turner and Max Scherzer in the previous season to bring in Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray. The Nationals are not contenders now, but they at least received compensation for the dismantling of their core and hope for the future. 

There is also the question of whether getting under the luxury tax threshold is even worth it. Ownership valued getting under the threshold over maximizing the return for trading the best homegrown Red Sox player in at least a generation.

While the Nationals weren’t close to that threshold, they opted to hold on to their albatross contract (Patrick Corbin) instead of trying to package him with Soto to get his contract off the books.

They even included a throw-in piece that allowed them to maximize their return. A Betts trade could have netted a significant haul from a team’s farm system that may have negated the draft pick penalties associated with going over the luxury tax threshold.  Simply, the Betts trade was not structured like the Soto trade was, and the return showed. The Nationals recognized that they were trading a generational talent, the Red Sox did not. 

If not for the David Price contract, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. If David Price had competed up to par with his expectations, we may not even have the (so far) disastrous Chris Sale extension to worry about in the present day. 

The current situation and the lackluster return for Mookie Betts can be traced back to that damn David Price contract. 

Featured Photo By Paul Rutherford/USA Today Sports

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