If the price is right, one of the game's most dominant left-handed power arms could be on the move well before Major League Baseball's July 31 trade deadline. But what's the right price for a division rival to scoop him up? And what if that rival is the Evil Empire, the New York Yankees?
"As for the possibility of the Rays dealing with an AL East team, the best guess is that it's not an absolute impossibility," writes Topkin, "but it likely would require an additional premium for the Rays to even consider a deal."
David Price is the 2012 Cy Young winner with a lightning 97 mph fastball and an MLB-leading 144 strikeouts to a ridiculously low 14 walks in 2014. In his last start, he became the first pitcher in 10 years to strike out at least 10 in five consecutive starts.
During ESPN's Monday Night Baseball broadcast of Game 1 of this Yankees-Rays series, Tim Kurkjian perfectly proclaimed the sort of poetic justice for any team wishing to land Price. He said Tampa expects "the world" in return for their ace, who appears to be pitching better than he has in his baseball life.
"This is the best pitcher I’ve ever been," Price said Saturday, per The New York Times' Tyler Kepner. "I feel in complete control on the mound at all times."
The 16-year-old organization that calls St. Pete its home maintains just a $76.8 million Opening Day payroll, per Cot's Baseball Contracts, and can't afford their No. 1 starter long term. Trading Price for young talent in the short term simply makes too much sense for the team with the worst record in baseball entering the week.
Think about it this way: If the Rays stay in the hunt, they'll be much less likely to deal their best pitcher on whom success could ultimately hinge. If they fall out in the next few weeks, there isn't much doubt they'll look to offload him.
The real pickle for Tampa?
"[E]very five days they wait to trade him reduces his value because that means one fewer start he makes for his new team," Topkin opines.
ESPN.com's Jim Bowden (subscription required) adds: "The Rays know the best time to trade Price is now; the return won't be as high this offseason or next July as it will be over the next six weeks. So it's only matter of time before he's dealt to the highest bidder."
If that bidder happens to be the Yankees, further rationality tells us that general manager Andrew Friedman would be more than hesitant to deal him to one of their bitter enemies. So is there an offer out there from the Yankees and GM Brian Cashman that the Rays couldn't afford to refuse?
Put simply: Yes, the Yankees could conceivable coax the Rays into a blockbuster package deal.
But for the Yankees to deliver "the world" to Tampa means they would likely have to part with not one, but several of their top prospects. That you can hear Yankee fans already cringing at the sound of "Sanchez" or "Betances" sums this situation up best for the Bombers, who entered the fray with Sabathia, Kuroda, Nova, Tanaka and Pineda and now find themselves in the hot New York summer with Kuroda, Tanaka, Phelps, Whitley and Nuno.
Below we'll consider the context for a potential trade, as well as the options, before the flame-thrower takes the hill Tuesday night in—where else—the Boogie Down.
Trade Suitors: Who Is 'Desperate' for Starting Pitching?
The idea of trading for Price this summer is pretty sexy, after all. This season, the 6'6", 210-pounder leads all of MLB in strikeouts, as mentioned, and strikeout-to-walk ratio (10.29), while ranking third in the AL in strikeouts per nine innings (10.45) and WHIP (1.09), per FanGraphs.
Since his first full season in 2009, Price has compiled 21.3 WAR, placing him sixth among all AL starters over that time. Among AL starters who have totaled 1,000 innings since '09, only Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and Jon Lester have posted a better K/9 than Price.
And that electric fastball of his? Among all MLB pitchers since '09, only Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee have saved more runs via the fastball, per wFB, FanGraphs' Pitch Type Linear Weights (Pitch Value) statistic. For a more accurate representation of the total runs saved by pitch, we can extrapolate that same stat over 100 fastballs thrown with FanGraphs' wFB/C, which again bears out Price as the third-most successful fastball-thrower in the bigs over that time.
But only a handful of ballclubs possess the requisite talent pool of prospects capable of luring away the former Vanderbilt star who turns 29 later this August.
"There no doubt...will be a firm market for Price," adds Topkin. "The question is whether the Rays can find what they would consider the right deal, or at least a good-enough one. Or they, too, can always wait until the offseason, though that could make for a long summer."
Topkin lists teams such as the Athletics and Indians as likely suitors and viable partners. Though ESPN.com's Bowden, via Topkin's report, raises the plausibility for five additional teams: the Angels, White Sox, Braves, Blue Jays—and the Yankees.
The most obvious first question is, of these teams, who appears to desperately need starting pitching? The follow-up is, which of those teams can make a truly enticing offer based on movable—and projectable—minor leaguers around whom the Rays could look to build?
The final question: Which team, or teams, would be desperate enough—or confident enough—to deal the potential future pieces of their franchise for Price?
Where Do the Yankees Fit in?
|Yankees Starters in 2014|
|GS||W-L||ERA||FIP||WHIP||K/9||Last Start (Decision)|
|CC Sabathia||8||3-4||5.28||4.76||1.478||9.4||May 10 (ND)|
|Hiroki Kuroda||16||5-5||4.23||3.89||1.244||6.3||June 25 (W)|
|Ivan Nova||4||2-2||8.27||6.88||1.839||5.2||April 19 (L)|
|Masahiro Tanaka||16||11-3||2.10||2.91||0.951||9.9||June 28 (L)|
|Michael Pineda||4||2-2||1.83||2.70||1.017||6.9||April 23 (L)|
|David Phelps||11||3-4||4.26||4.27||1.408||8.1||June 30 (ND)|
|Vidal Nuno||13||2-4||5.42||5.30||1.397||6.8||June 27 (W)|
|Chase Whitley||9||3-2||4.70||3.54||1.391||5.7||June 29 (L)|
Let's return to the Bombers. They entered the season with a cast of characters fit for a deep run into October: CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda.
Then Nova's year concluded after a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament signaled the need for Tommy John surgery; Sabathia hit the disabled list with a degenerative knee after just eights starts and a 5.28 ERA; and Pineda has been out since late April with a back injury.
That the Yankees entered play Monday just two games back in the AL East is a testament both to the fledgling division and to the passable jobs by fill-ins David Phelps (3-4, 4.45 as starter), Chase Whitley (3-2, 4.70) and Vidal Nuno (2-4, 4.85).
But if we're talking about a team "desperate" for starting pitching, we must remember we're looking through the lens of an organization built upon the foundation of the Boss, George Steinbrenner. And "success," just like "desperation," are concepts held entirely different by his family and the organization than, say, anybody else or any other team.
Recent history—in the form of a half-billion dollars this past winter by his offspring—tells us we'd be remiss to believe New York would continue to rely on Phelps, Whitley and Nuno.
Even with returns for Sabathia and Pineda scheduled for late July and August, respectively, per The Star-Ledger's Jorge Castillo, we can go ahead and label the Yankees' need as "desperate," and can figure Cashman's hand is glued to the phone.
"I’m looking to make some additions if I can. I’d like to try to do a few things before those guys get back, if possible," said Cashman, referring to Sabathia and Pineda, per The New York Times' Zach Schonbrun (h/t MLB Trade Rumors' Mark Polishuk). "But I’ve already been trying. ...it’s not because of a lack of phone calls. We’ll see."
How do the Yankees Stand a Chance?
The answer is twofold: First, of the short list of teams possessing projectable prospects who are also willing to move them, there just aren't many longing for top-end starting pitching.
"The most interesting aspect of a potential deal is that there aren't as many contending teams looking for a top-of-the-rotation starter as in the past," notes ESPN.com's Bowden. "For example, in the National League, teams such as the Cardinals, Brewers, Reds, Giants, Dodgers and Nationals all have enough pitching at the top that they have no reason to empty their farm system to acquire Price."
Second, and perhaps more importantly in this case, no trade takes place unless it's mutually beneficial—and necessary—for all parties. And the Rays have their own desperation to trade Price.
Speaking on factors like the Rays' payroll, stadium and recent draft trends, the Times' Kepner speaks on the virtual need to move their star in a push to acquire talent in one of their only truly pragmatic—and to this point in their short history—successful ways:
All of which makes it all but essential that the Rays trade Price, who could garner the potentially high-impact talent that the team struggles to access in other ways. Some of the Rays’ better players — Myers, outfielder Matt Joyce, and starters Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi — have come in trades for established starting pitchers.
Though they may well be seeking the world in return for their star, there's a necessity to move him. The more weeks they allow themselves to climb toward the division-leading Jays, the further that desperation goes down.
And trading expensive, valuable stars for younger talent is what has largely kept the Rays afloat on the Sunshine State's western coast. "I think, in a lot of ways, it’s our only chance for success," Friedman told Kepner.
“The trades that we’ve made, looking back, the only reason we got good players in return is because we traded really good players. And so it’s important for us to know what our weaknesses are and what our limitations are and operate within them." Kepner adds:
Some of the Rays’ limitations never change. They are locked into an outdated stadium on the wrong side of Tampa Bay, a position that severely restricts their spending.
Their on-field weaknesses have been exposed without warning in a discouraging first half. Their American League-worst record, 33-49 entering Saturday, recalls their hopeless beginnings as the Devil Rays.
The expansion team reached the Fall Classic in their 11th year of existence after going 61-101 the previous year and reached the postseason promised land three of the five years since.
The last thing the Rays would want to do is hold up a mirror that reminds them of when their colors—dark green, purple and black—were more reminiscent of bruising than of brighter days ahead.
How do the Yankees Best Coax the Rays?
To get one of the game's best from Tampa, New York would not only have to give up one of their best; they'd have to give up someone universally projected to be one of the best.
The right offer would most likely cause Yankee fans to bury their heads in their hands—at least in the interim.
This means that convincing Tampa to take a chance on catcher Gary Sanchez (hitting just .261/.344/.419 in two Double-A seasons; remaining questions on defense/footwork) might not be enough.
"Quantity, such as a five-for-one deal, is a possibility if the Rays deal ace LHP David Price," writes Topkin, "but they seem more likely to go for quality, seeking a couple of premium prospects to restock their farm system or cost-controlled young big-leaguers."
Foreseeably, the only realistic way the Rays might pull the trigger is if the Yankees were to offer several names—some "premium prospects" and one or more "young big-leaguers." And one of those names should have already convinced the Rays he will be one of the best at the major league level.
Someone like Dellin Betances. But more on him in a moment.
Just two years ago, New York did indeed experience some head-in-hand syndrome. In a move to get one of the game's hottest, most projectable starters, the Yankees traded whom many believed to be the future big-bopping catcher of the Bronx, Jesus Montero, their top organizational prospect and Baseball America's No. 6 prospect in the game. Michael Pineda was consequently traded to New York—where, "fondly" for Yankee fans, he'd promptly miss the next two seasons—in return for the big catcher and starting pitcher Hector Noesi.
Pineda, 22 at the time, had completed his stellar rookie year, going 9-10 in the AL West with a 3.74 ERA and an All-Star appearance. At the time, Montero had played 18 games in Triple-A Scranton, where he hit four homers and drove in 18, though there were lingering doubts on his ability to reach the majors.
Last week, in order to make room for a .265 hitter returning from the DL, the Mariners optioned Montero (4-for-14 MLB, .267/.346/.449 Triple-A) to the minors. Hector Noesi is just 2-4 in 11 starts with a 4.18 ERA—for the Chicago White Sox.
Moreover, it's common knowledge that the Bombers are lacking in the "premium prospects" department. Prior to this season, Baseball Prospectus ranked New York as the 23rd farm system in baseball and noted Gary Sanchez, the big catcher, as the top prospect—though just No. 85 overall. FanGraphs' Tony Blengino, meanwhile, ranked the Yankees' system 20th and called Sanchez the only "impact" prospect in the system.
ESPN.com's Bowden offered three realistic trade-bait names for a potential deal: Sanchez, right-hander Luis Severino (4-3, 2.76, 9.7 K/9, 1.072 WHIP in 2014) and breakout catcher/DH Peter O'Brien (25 HR, 16 2B, 56 RBI). But three high-upside prospects may not be enough to coax Tampa to give up someone already as dominant and proven as Price.
So how about Topkin's other option, then: those "young big-leaguers"? And what if someone of that ilk has a proven—heck, a dominant and compelling—track record in three months of major league service?
Perhaps I was reaching back in February, saying Betances could "surge through the spring to steal" one of the bullpen roles. Maybe I was still being too optimistic by March, stating: "[N]ot only does 26-year-old Betances deserve a role, but he has the potential to blossom into the most heralded bullpen arm in 2014."
But what if someone told you that as of July 1, Betances has pitched 48 innings in largely high-leverage situations for the Yankees, and that, of all MLB pitchers with at least 40 innings, he has the best K/9 (14.25), ERA (1.50) and FIP (1.26) in baseball?
It appears more rational that Tampa could agree to trade its best pitcher to New York if it were getting its future closer—and maybe MLB's best future ninth-inning man—in return.
Would the Yankees Risk it?
Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe recently spoke with Brewers GM Doug Melvin. As MLB Trade Rumors' Charlie Wilmoth reminded, Melvin traded away Zack Greinke in 2012 and acquired C.C. Sabathia in July 2008.
Melvin says he considered trading Greinke within the division, but with a caveat, of course: "I had teams within the division asking for him, and my approach to that is this: I had no problem doing it, but I had to get a little extra if I was going to do it."
And what was needed to bring one of the game's aces to Milwaukee in '08? Per Cafardo:
Melvin said the Indians insisted on former first-round pick Matt LaPorta in the deal [for Sabathia]. Check. There were a couple of other pitching prospects in the deal who didn’t pan out, but the biggest piece was the player to be named. Melvin said that if the Brewers made the playoffs, the Indians could pick the player, and if they didn’t, the Brewers would pick.
The player turned out to be Michael Brantley, who has turned out to be one of the best players in baseball.
“We figured if we struck early we’d have him for an extra month and get more out of it, so we were willing to work with the Indians on something to make that happen,” said Melvin, who knew there were other teams competing for Sabathia, suspecting the Dodgers were hot on his trail.
The difference, as Cafardo points out, is that Sabathia was eyeing free agency at the time, while Price remains under team control for another year, and thus might not immediately sign a long-term deal with his (potentially) new home.
The best price for Price would likely have to include Gary Sanchez and Dellin Betances—the player who could turn out to be one of the best in the bigs. But there's only one question: Would the Yankees feel comfortable pulling the trigger, and could they bite a Sanchez-Betances bullet on the chance Price may not sign on in the Bronx?
Perhaps they wouldn't—and shouldn't. But ESPN's Buster Olney (subscription required; h/t MLB Trade Rumors' Mark Polishuk) spoke with one scout who might have the best advice for the Yankees: Grin and bear it.
“You worry about the cost of signing him later," says the scout, "and if he walks away, that’s the way it goes. But you’re adding a No. 1 starter who can be a difference-maker for two seasons."