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Sifting Through the Rubble: Why the David Price Trade isn’t as Bad as You Think

Baseball is a business. Perhaps more than any other sport, it is a series of business organizations under the guise of logos, colors, and athletes. When the 2013 season ended, there was much speculation — where would David Price be traded? Who would he be traded for? Then the offseason came and went, and it became increasingly evident that the Rays were stocking up for a 2014 World Series run. It was all-in for a ring. All-time high payroll, all-time high hype. Then things happened.

Matt Moore went down with Tommy John surgery. Alex Cobb missed two months. Wil Myers got hurt. The bullpen sucked. The lineup was punchless. Hell, even Price wasn’t himself. And here were the Rays, three months into 2014, with baseball’s worst record. Then more things happened.

The bullpen came together, the lineup started hitting, and Price started throwing the ball better than he ever had. And on the eve of July 31st, the trade deadline, the thought was that trading David Price would be foolish because, after all, the Rays were in the playoff hunt.

Perhaps the people mad about this trade — Price to Detroit, Austin Jackson to Seattle, Drew Smyly, Nick Franklin, and Willy Adames — felt the return should have been higher. Admittedly, the Rays did not get a “sexy” name in return. There was no Wil Myers in this deal. But to call this trade “bad” ignores a few factors. Here they are.

1. Keeping Price in hopes of a miraculous playoff run goes against everything the Rays stand for.

The Rays have, since the Andrew Friedman/Matt Silverman braintrust took over, been a very progressive, numbers-oriented organization. Like Moneyball preaches, the Rays are in the business of buying runs and wins, not players. Think about some of the trades the Rays have made in the past years:

-Delmon Young, an extremely talented yet troubled outfielder, for Matt Garza, a promising SP, and Jason Bartlett, an underrated SS.

-Scott Kazmir, the team’s “ace”, for Alex Torres, a young reliever, and another prospect.

-James Shields, co-ace, and Wade Davis, back-end starter, for Wil Myers, baseball’s best young outfield prospect, Jake Odorizzi, a potential front-of-the-rotation arm, and Mike Montgomery, a forgotten former top prospect.

-Garza, at this point a solid #2 starter, for Chris Archer, Brandon Guyer, Robinson Chirinos, Hak-Ju Lee, and Sam Fuld.

Now, all but one of those trades (Kazmir the exception) were in the offseason, but you see an overriding theme. The Rays trade established, high-value MLB talent for young, high-potential talent with team control. 

Price was a valuable trade chip. Was his value limitless? Absolutely not. He is arbitration-eligible this offseason, and will likely be making $20 million next year on a one-year deal before hitting the open market. Whichever team that traded for him knew that it would be an expensive acquisition, which is why the only teams rumored to be in serious contention for Price were big-money teams.

And then there’s the fact that, not only are the Rays not currently in the playoff picture, it was wholly unlikely that, even with Price, they would make the playoffs. To keep him, and diminish his trade value, would have been so unlike the Rays’ front office, whose Wall Street-like mantra is to sell players at the peak of their value. 

Now, this begs the question: did the Rays get the best value they could have? The answer is no, but that does not mean the value they did receive was poor. 

2. The Rays get three very talented players with years of team control left.

When names like Oscar Taveres, Joc Pederson, and Taijuan Walker are thrown around in rumors, it’s easy to view the actual players received as poor in comparison. Ignoring the fact that the blue-chip prospects were likely never in play (addressed next), let’s look at the three players the Rays did get.

Nick Franklin, age 23, profiles as Ben Zobrist’s heir apparent. He is primarily an infielder, but can play outfield as well. His numbers don’t blow you away — .214/.291/.358 in 119 career games — but his peripheral statistics, namely his line drive rate, indicate that he is a much better hitter. He has an OPS of nearly .850 in Triple-A this year, and he was rumored to be highly coveted by the Rays for a while. He was a former top-50 prospect, and given that he has five years of team control remaining, the Rays will have little worry about cost-wise with him.

Drew Smyly, age 25, has four years of team control remaining. He has a nice four-pitch arsenal, combining a low-90s fastball, high-80s cutter, 78-82 slurve, and a low-80s changeup. His numbers are solid, and a career 3.70 xFIP shows that, at the very least, he has every chance to be a middle-of-the-rotation arm for at least the four years the Rays have him under control. 

And then there’s Willy Adames, age 18, at least three seasons away from even having a chance to play in the majors. He’s the most exciting of all, because he’s young, he’s very talented, and he’s the Rays’ property for years to come. The downside is that he is a shortstop, a position the Rays have been historically poor at developing. However, he is considered to have above-average tools in almost all facets of his game. 

So, to recap, that’s Ben Zobrist, Volume II, 180 innings per year of above-average starting pitcher innings, and a potential everyday shortstop down the road, traded for a $20 million Cy Young award winner.

3. Rumors of better prospects being on the table were just rumors; and don’t forget the nature of what a prospect is.

I think the big source of the anger surrounding this trade is the disappointment that a blue-chip prospect, like Myers in the Shields trade, was not landed. Here’s the reality: a blue-chip prospect was likely never on the table. Oscar Taveras, Joc Pederson, Gregory Polanco, Corey Seager, Taijuan Walker — these guys were obviously asked for by Tampa Bay, but it must have become clear that a true top-10 talent was too much to ask for one guaranteed year of David Price.

I’m looking through Twitter, and seeing absurd amounts of #FireFriedman. Really? Fire Andrew Friedman, former executive of the year and the architect of a team that has been one of baseball’s winningest franchises since 2008? Okay, sure. It’s time to do a reality check.

When the Rays traded James Shields to Kansas City, it landed an ENORMOUS return. You know why? Because Dayton Moore is baseball’s worst general manager, and decided that trading three excellent prospects for a middling ace and a reclamation project starter was a great idea.

When the Rays traded Matt Garza to the Cubs, it landed a huge return of prospects. Why? Because Chicago was under the illusion they could “win now.” You see how that trade turned out for them.

The Rays made this trade because they are, according to numbers (and history, for what its worth), not going to make the playoffs this year, can’t afford David Price next year, and wanted to receive players in return who could impact the MLB roster in 2014 and beyond. That’s what they did, and in that sense, the trade was successful.

Now, it’s not all praise. This was a terrible move from a marketing perspective. The Rays were perfectly positioned (and, to be fair, still are positioned) to make a historic run at the postseason. Keeping David Price would have sent the message: “We’re serious about making the postseason.” But now he’s gone, and the message is clear:

"We’d be happy to make the postseason, but we’d rather not pay one player $20 million next year, and his value will never be higher than it is now."

And that message will not sit well with fans. In fact, if you search any social media outlet, Rays fans are furious. Attendance will suffer severely, and some fans may ditch the team completely. 

That’s all well and good, and to be expected of a fan base that can’t put more than 15,000 butts in seats on a good night. But to bash the front office for this trade is to misunderstand the nature of baseball, and specifically, the fact that, as a business entity, the Rays are the “have-nots”. This was a move that everyone was dreading, and as the days went on, everything thought wouldn’t happen.

What was forgotten is that, ultimately, this trade was going to be necessary. Baseball is a business, and this was the business decision made.