- David Price has battled injuries and ineffectiveness all season, so using him as a reliever might be the best use of his talents once the playoffs arrive.
Unless you're a fan of Jesus Sucre home runs and Eduardo Rodriguez three-ball counts, then Sunday's matinee affair between the Red Sox and Rays wasn't much in terms of entertainment. But the seventh and eighth innings of Tampa's 3–2 win over Boston did provide something noteworthy for the rest of the month and beyond: the debut of David Price, relief pitcher.
Making his return to a big league mound after missing the last seven weeks with soreness in his left elbow and triceps, Price looked like his old self in his new role, setting down all six Rays hitters he faced on just 21 pitches. The lefty was able to use his full arsenal—cutter, sinker, changeup and curveball—and got plenty of good results, striking out two and getting six swings and misses on his 21 offerings. He even hit 96 with his fastball and sat at 95, a full mile per hour up from his average on the season. "That was even more than personally anticipated," said manager John Farrell after the game.
It's as much as the Red Sox could have hoped for when they decided to make the unconventional move. Price has some experience as a reliever—most famously as a rookie in the 2008 postseason, when he helped the Rays win the AL pennant by getting a seven-out save in Game 7 of that year's ALCS against the Red Sox—but he hasn't appeared in a regular-season game out of the bullpen since 2010. (He threw three innings out of the bullpen for Toronto in the 2015 AL Division Series as part of a much-scrutinized mini-controversy.) That makes sense: For a pitcher who's been as good as Price, there's been no reason to use him as a reliever.
But the Price of 2017 is one who's been hampered by injuries, and the latest bout of elbow soreness that landed him on the disabled list in late July made it nearly impossible for him to rebuild arm strength in time for the playoffs. Given the choice of shutting him down for the season or trying something different, the Red Sox chose to get unconventional with their $200 million man.
A disastrous first relief stint might have changed minds in the Boston front office, but a strong outing like Sunday's raises the possibility that Price could be a real weapon out of the bullpen in the postseason. Ideally, Price would function as a kind of Andrew Miller-esque long fireman who can get six-to-eight crucial outs in the middle of a game or in relief of a tired starter. That's something that each AL contender has: Cleveland with Miller, Houston with Chris Devenski, and New York with the unheralded Chad Green (or perhaps David Robertson). Given Price's compromised arm, and with an eye likely on his horrible postseason stats (a 5.54 ERA in 66 2/3 innings, including a 5.74 mark in 58 innings as a starter and a disastrous five runs allowed in 3 1/3 innings in his lone turn last October against the Indians), this may be the only way to get the best out of him in the playoffs.
There's certainly no guarantee this works. Price isn't used to regular relief work and the strain it puts on the arm—of having to get ready at a moment's notice, or of having to warm up more than once in a game. His last stint as a playoff reliever was a mess, as he gave up three runs in three innings (though that likely had something to do with the randomness of his appearance). Or he could struggle in his next outings, or re-injure his arm, and then the whole experiment comes to a crashing halt. There's also the possibility that a postseason reliever's workload could end up exacerbating his injury issues, jeopardizing the five years and $157 million still to go on his deal.
But Sunday's appearance was a tantalizing glimpse at the huge boost that Price could provide. He's a piece that Boston could definitely use, as Farrell has struggled to find a reliable bridge to closer Craig Kimbrel, and a pitcher with elite stuff like Price's can be a difference-maker if used properly, like Miller last year. It's a real risk that Boston is taking in putting Price in the bullpen, and there's a good chance it either amounts to nothing or blows up in the team's face. Postseason success, though, is all about squeezing every last penny, and in Price, the Sox may have unexpectedly found themselves a real advantage in relief.