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How much is David Price worth to the Tigers?

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David Price is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2015 season. Here is a look at what it might take to sign him to a long term extension.

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David Price is one of the best starting pitchers in the game of baseball. Over the past four seasons, he ranks fourth in the major leagues in wins above replacement (WAR), right behind Justin Verlander and just ahead of Max Scherzer. In 2014, Price led the major leagues in innings pitched and his 6.1 WAR was fourth in the major leagues, higher than any pitcher on the Tigers roster. He had a lower ERA and fielding independent pitching (FIP) than any of the heralded starting pitchers in the Detroit rotation, and he is consistently among the league leaders in most major statistical categories.

The Tigers traded Drew Smyly and Austin Jackson for just one season and two months of club control with Price. He was viewed as the potential replacement for Max Scherzer, who had rejected a lucrative six year, $144 million contract offer prior to the 2014 season. Price is eligible for arbitration for the fourth and final time this winter, and he will very likely be the highest paid arbitration eligible player for the 2015 season. He figures to earn a salary of about $19 million for the year unless he is signed to a multi-year contract.

What is Price worth if the club is to sign him to a multi-year contract extension?  In that case, the numbers should be very similar to what Scherzer was worth one year previous. Statistically, the two pitchers are very close over the past four seasons. Price has accumulated 19.5 fWAR to Scherzer’s 19.1 in that span. Scherzer is one year and 30 days older, so they will be the same age when they hit the free agent market. All that remains to be determined is how Price will do in his final season before being eligible for free agency.

In 2010, the Tigers signed Justin Verlander to a five year, $80 million contract. This deal accounted for his two final seasons of arbitration eligibility and his first three years of free agency. He received $6.75 million and $12.75 million for years five and six of club control (years one and two of the deal), then $20 million per season for three more years. In locking him up early, the club assumed the risk of injury and bought themselves at least some discount on his final arbitration seasons. He then received another five-year extension three years later, this time with a total value of $180 million for the seven years.

Scherzer received $6.725 million and $15.525 million for his final two seasons under club control, then turned down the six year, $144 million offer last offseason. That offer would have accounted for his final season of arbitration and five years of potential free agency. The average annual salary would have put him among the top six pitchers in the game. If you take out the first season, the $25.8 million average would be just above Verlander’s seven year contract.

The Tigers find themselves in the same situation with Price that they were in with Scherzer one year ago, minus the history of having been together for several seasons -- and any loyalty that might go with that. They are also a season closer to free agency than they were with Verlander when he signed his two extensions.

If you start with the value of a top free agent starting pitcher at age 30, discount that price for the one season of arbitration eligibility and the risk of injury and decline in performance that would shift to the club in any long term deal, that should give a pretty good idea of Price's value in an extension. Scherzer was the exception in turning down $144 million for six years.

Looking at the going rate for top tier starting pitchers on the free agent market, here are the ten most lucrative multi-year contracts in baseball:

Player Total Value Years Average Salary
Clayton Kershaw $215 million 2014-20 $30.7 million
Justin Verlander $180 million 2013-19 $25.7 million
Felix Hernandez $175 million 2013-19 $25 million
CC Sabathia $161 million 2009-15 $23 million
Masahiro Tanaka $155 million 2014-20 $22.1 million
Jon Lester $155 million 2015-20 $25.8 million
Zack Greinke $147 million 2013-18 $24.5 million
Cole Hamels $144 million 2013-18 $24 million
Johan Santana $137.5 million 2008-13 $22.9 million
Matt Cain $127.5 million 2012-17 $21.3 million

If Price remains healthy and pitches in 2015 as he has in recent years, he will be in a position to receive six years or more at a salary of $25 to $30 million, right at the top of the scale for starting pitchers. If he were to sign an extension a year prior to becoming a free agent, he would shift the risk of injury or a decline in performance to the club, and probably settle for something in the range of the $144 million for six years, up to $180 million over seven years.

Price also knows James Shields, his former teammate in Tampa, and is witnessing the suspense that Shields and Scherzer are going through as they search for a home. Having watched Scherzer successfully gamble by turning down so much money, Price may have his heart -- and his head -- set on reaping the benefits of free agency. He is not likely to be offering any sort of hometown discounts to stay in Detroit. On the other hand, he could be set for life, if he isn’t already, with a pretty fair assurance that he would be with a competitive team for several more seasons if he does decide to stay put.

It is not likely that the Tigers would trade Price unless they were to re-sign Max Scherzer, and it’s far from certain that they would trade Price even if they did extend Scherzer. But if they were to trade him, what is his trade value?  Well, he was made available last July with one season plus two months left before he’d be eligible for free agency. At the time, Tampa Bay felt that the best offer was pitcher Drew Smyly, infielder Nick Franklin, and prospect Willy Adames. Detroit was willing to part with Smyly plus center fielder Austin Jackson, so that should give us a pretty good idea of Price’s value.

The two months of the 2014 season are gone, so there may be some decline in trade value. However, Price would still be one of the best available pitchers if he could be had in a trade, and he won’t come with a long term commitment or a $25 million salary for 2015. If the return is a Robbie Ray and a utility infielder, forget it. But if the return is a Drew Smyly and a cost controlled young infielder, and if the club is not able to sign Price to a multi year extension, the Tigers might consider cashing in for the right price.