When the Detroit Tigers acquired David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays in a blockbuster trade last July, the ace left-handed pitcher was viewed as a potential replacement for then-reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer. With Scherzer now a free agent and seeking a $200 million contract -- and the Tigers reportedly not engaged in any negotiations at those rates -- one might think that Detroit would be all the more interested in signing Price to a long term contract.
The Tigers gave up five years of club control in Drew Smyly and their starting center fielder, Austin Jackson, for just over one guaranteed season of Price. Price is one of a handful of pitchers who could actually replace Scherzer’s production in the starting rotation. If Scherzer and Price both depart for greener pastures via free agency, it’s easy to see the trade as a big negative, leaving the club very thin in the rotation after the 2015 season.
Why have the Tigers not made a stronger push to get Price locked up for several years into the future? There are many possible reasons.
Jon Morosi of Fox Sports posed the theory that Detroit may be holding off on getting Price signed because they’re waiting to see what happens with Scherzer first. Tigers’ owner Mike Ilitch is very loyal to players who have performed well for his team, and Scherzer would certainly fit that description.
So the Tigers -- for now, at least -- have retained the ability to sign Max Scherzer and trade David Price.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) December 29, 2014
It doesn’t appear that teams are burning up the phone lines to bid the $200 million asking price that Scherzer’s agent, Scott Boras, has floated. The Tigers would still have to be considered among the teams who could sign Scherzer, if his price is right. They have made a point of not ruling out the possibility, although we are told that there are no negotiations at the moment.
Another possibility is that Price doesn’t want to sign a long term contract yet. He is only one year away from free agency. Perhaps he isn’t thrilled about the idea of pitching in Detroit for the long term. He didn't seem thrilled about the trade, even though the Tigers were in the thick of a pennant race. His former club wasn’t about to pay him to stay past next season. If Detroit is indeed waiting on Scherzer before making a push to sign Price, that’s not going to be the most appealing sign to a pitcher looking to settle down long term with a club.
Price also may be looking for the same kind of contract that Scherzer is looking for, and why shouldn’t he? Over the past three seasons, Price has thrown 646 innings with a 3.05 ERA and a 2.94 FIP, while Scherzer has worked 622 innings with a 3.24 ERA and an identical FIP. They are two of the best pitchers in the game, and should be paid accordingly.
If Detroit is stuck on the six year, $144 million offer that they made to Scherzer prior to the 2014 season, there’s no reason to believe that Price would accept the offer that Scherzer rejected. If they are willing to go above that number, then why not see if they can keep Scherzer and still have Price -- either for a season or to be used in a major trade.
There are other financial considerations with Price as well. He is eligible for arbitration for the final time this winter, and is estimated to be worth about $19 million for one season. That is a substantial discount off the $25 million or so that the top pitchers are getting on the free agent market nowadays. He does have significant value beyond what he will be paid in 2015.
If the Tigers were to sign Price to a multi-year contract, the average annual value of that contract would be factored in to their payroll for luxury tax purposes, meaning that they would be hit with a 17.5 percent tax on Price’s salary in 2015, and a 30 percent tax on any amount over the tax threshold in 2016. If they are going to sign Price long term, it may be better to first agree on a number for the 2015 season to avoid arbitration, then tack on an extension, thereby postponing any tax consequences for at least another season.
Detroit will be talking to Price and his agent about a contract for the 2015 season regardless of whether any extension is discussed, and we know that the Tigers aren’t likely to wind up in an arbitration hearing, so some agreement will be reached. Salary figures will be exchanged later this month, with hearings tentatively scheduled for February, so the arbitration clock is ticking as spring training approaches.
The ideal situation for Tigers fans would be for the club to keep both Scherzer and Price for the long term, but that may not be likely. With payroll right on the edge of the luxury tax threshold, a tax on both pitchers at a 30 percent rate would be very significant, and they will have potential vacancies at closer, set-up man, catcher, and in the outfield after the 2015 season as well.
The next best scenario would be to sign Scherzer and keep Price for a season, collecting a first round draft pick when he leaves via free agency after the season. They could also trade Price for a package of players to fill other needs on the team, including the void that his departure would leave in the starting rotation.
There are many factors at play when it comes to extending David Price. If the Tigers are not going to be able to sign both pitchers, locking up Price would mean saying goodbye to Scherzer, and the Tigers may not be quite ready to close that door at least until they know all their options.