In the wake of Felix Hernandez's $175 million contract becoming a reality, I examined the likelihood of Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw becoming the first pitcher to cross the $200 million threshold. No deal is imminent for either ace, since neither will hit free agency until after the 2014 season, and a lot can happen — for better or worse — that could change their trajectories towards such a high figure. Toward the end of the piece, I noted the presence of one other potential $200 million man on the radar: David Price. If he reaches that threshold, it will almost certainly be to wear a different uniform — though even then, the odds appear to be stacked against him, because the possibility exists that he's peaked too early for such a scenario to play out.
The 27-year-old Rays lefty is coming off his best season to date, one in which he won the AL Cy Young award while leading the league in wins (20) and ERA (2.56) and ranking second in Wins Above Replacement (6.4; Baseball-Reference.com version). He struck out more than 200 hitters for the second straight season, made the All-Star team for the third year in a row and proved that his big 2010 season (19 wins, 2.72 ERA, 4.4 WAR, runner-up to Hernandez in the Cy Young voting) was no fluke. But if history holds, he won't be a Ray forever, and he's already mused openly about the possibility of free agency, despite his comfort in Tampa Bay. As he told Yahoo! Sports' Tim Brown last month:
"But I don't want to sell myself short. I don't want to mess up for the future of other guys that could be in my position as well. That's something you have to look out for. We are a brotherhood as MLB players."
Brown noted that Price's agent, Bo McKinness, told reporters, "He wants to have the best contract in baseball, however that may be defined." Unless he follows the Jered Weaver route — signing a contract far below market value to remain in a comfortable and competitive situation — such a statement doesn't bode well for an extended stay in Tampa Bay.
Price is further from free agency than either Verlander or Kershaw; as a Super Two, he has two more years of arbitration eligibility remaining, which means that the earliest he would hit the market is after the 2015 season. The Rays' recent past suggests that he may be on the move by then. Unlike former teammate James Shields, he's on a year-to-year basis, contract-wise, having opted out of the final year of the club-friendly six-year, $8.5 million deal he signed upon being drafted first overall in 2007. He made $4.35 million last year, a big boost from the $1.5 million he would have made under the terms of the original deal, and will make $10.1125M this year, a record for any second-year arbitration-eligible pitcher, blowing by the $7.37 million Weaver made in 2011. His current salary makes him the highest-paid player in Rays history, an honor he's likely to hold onto until at least 2015, when Evan Longoria is scheduled to make $11 million.
Longoria, of course, is bound to Tampa Bay for a good long time via a six-year, $100 million extension that runs from 2017-2022, after his current nine-year, $45 million deal (originally six years and $17.5 million plus three additional option years and an escalator clause) runs its course. Though Price is just as much a face-of-the-franchise type player, he hasn't entered into another long-term deal with the cash-strapped Rays, and the team sounds realistic about its ability to keep him.
In recent years, the Rays have allowed outfielders Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton to depart as free agents, but they've been more proactive about moving their frontline pitchers before they reach the market due to their considerable organizational depth. They traded Scott Kazmir to the Angels in August 2009, with two seasons and a club option still to go on a three-year, $28.5 million deal signed in 2008, a move that set the stage for Wade Davis to join the rotation. They traded Matt Garza to the Cubs in January 2011, with three seasons of arbitration eligibility remaining; like Price, he was a Super Two. That move set the stage for Jeremy Hellickson to join the rotation, and he went on to win Rookie of the Year honors. They traded Shields to the Royals in December with two years of club control remaining via the affordable club options tacked onto a four-year contract that ran from 2008-2011, and that will wind up valued at $38 million over seven years. That deal also included Davis, who spent 2010 and 2011 in Tampa Bay's rotation before moving to the bullpen last year; he has three years remaining on a four-year, $12.6 million deal that also includes three club options. The Garza and Shields/Davis deals netted the Rays impressive hauls that together account for four of the top five prospects on Baseball Prospectus' recently released Top Ten list in outfielder Wil Myers (1st, from Royals), righty Chris Archer (2nd, via Cubs), shortstop Hak-Ju Lee (4th, Cubs) and righty Jake Odorizzi (5th, Royals).
Those deals are allowing the organization to replenish itself despite a lull in their drafting prowess, one largely borne of their own success. According to Baseball America, the Rays haven't graduated a single pick from their last five drafts (2008-2012) to the majors; Price and Matt Moore (an eighth round 2007 pick) are the most recent ones. In 2008, they chose shortstop Tim Beckham at first overall, bypassing Buster Posey (chosen fifth by the Giants) as well as eight other top 10 picks that have reached the majors so far. Beckham has plodded through the system and missed 50 games last year due to a suspension for marijuana use, though he's likely to debut in the majors sometime this year. Bumped from the first pick of the draft to 30th on the heels of the franchise's surprising trip to the World Series, the team failed to sign its top two picks in 2009, while its top 2010 pick, outfielder Josh Sale, served a 50-game suspension for a substance abuse violation this past year, interrupting an otherwise solid season in A-ball. Only one 2010 pick, supplemental first-rounder Drew Vettleson (an outfielder), is on the BP top 10 list.
Despite that lull, the Garza and Shields/Davis trades have given the team two candidates (Archer and Odorizzi) to challenge Alex Cobb and Jeff Niemann for the right to round out the rotation behind Price, Moore and Hellickson. A trade of Niemann, who has one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining, could be on the horizon, and the team is said to have explored the market for Hellickson before trading Shields.
Given his resume, it's Price who would fetch the biggest haul via trade, one that could surpass the Shields/Davis package — headlined by Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year (Myers) with the near-ready Odorizzi, formerly well-regarded pitching prospect Mike Montgomery and longshot infielder Patrick Leonard — as well as that of R.A. Dickey. Coming off the NL Cy Young award, with one year of club control and a $5 million contract for 2013, Dickey netted the Mets near-ready catcher Travis d'Arnaud (14th on the top 100 list of ESPN's Keith Law — neither Baseball Prospectus nor Baseball America have released theirs yet), A-ball power righty Noah Syndergaard (97th on Law's list, said to be much higher on at least one of the others) and 18-year-old outfielder/lottery ticket Wuilmer Becerra (three catchers changed sides in the deal). If he were to be dealt now, Price would at least net a top 10 prospect and probably much more, though whether that means another elite prospect or an established major leaguer depends on the Rays' dance partner.
The possibility of one such deal was floated recently, in which the Rangers would trade shortstop Jurickson Profar — number one on Law's list (and likely others as well), but blocked by Elvis Andrus — to Tampa Bay in a deal for Price. Asked about whether that was a fair deal, Law told Dallas radio station KESN that he felt the Rays would have to offer more, given Profar's six years of club control — three very cheap — versus Price's three much more expensive ones. Law said he couldn't actually see such a deal between the two teams going down given the perceived value of the pitcher, and the likelihood that Tampa Bay would seek a team more willing to overpay, as Kansas City appears to have done for Shields and Davis.
As was the case in the Dickey deal, if Price is traded, it might be on the condition of the pitcher agreeing to an extension with his new team within a 72-hour window. It's unlikely that a $200 million pact could be hammered out on such short notice, though; more likely, his new team would target an extension covering the remainder of his arbitration eligibility, plus at least a year of free agency, which would of course defer an even bigger payday, and could cede the race to $200 million to somebody else if it hasn't been won by then. With the recent retirement of 2006 NL Cy Young winner Brandon Webb offering the latest cautionary tale, Price may opt to use his robust health and existing leverage toward the certainty of an intermediate deal. Webb won his award in the first year of a four-year, $19.5 million deal that included just one game pitched in the final year — which would have been his first year of free agent eligibility — due to a frayed labrum, though the Diamondbacks followed that by picking up an $8.5 million option for 2010 that covered only a frustrating cycle of rehab and retreat, without even a minor league appearance to show. All of which is to say that the likelihood of Price becoming the first $200 million pitcher may be as slim as the possibility of him signing a Longoria-like deal to remain a Ray. He'll certainly become a wealthy man no matter what happens (not that he isn't already), but one hopes that he'll remain healthy and effective long enough to cash in one way or another.