In their short-lived 2014 postseason, David Price was the only ace in the Detroit Tigers' rotation who lived up to the billing. Now it's up to the proven left-handed starter to lead the current rotation into the 2015 season -- one that is missing a key part of its pitching staff, Justin Verlander. The lone question surrounding Price at this point, is whether he and the Tigers will reach a long-term deal before he hits the open market after the 2015 season.
President and general manager Dave Dombrowski pulled off a stunner of a deadline trade in 2014. In what appeared to be a general manager's game of chicken with Oakland A's' GM Billy Beane, the Tigers acquired Price in a three-team trade with the Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners. The former Rays ace helped power the Tigers through the stretch drive, shutting out the Minnesota Twins over 7 1/3 innings on the last day of the season to clinch the division title.
Price was a blue-chip prospect from the beginning, selected in the first overall pick in 2007 by the Tampa Bay Rays. Price was actually drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but declined their offer, choosing instead to go to college on scholarship. The 6'6, 220-pound lefty was one of the more successful college pitchers of all-time for that conduit of major league pitching talent, Vanderbilt University. He entered the draft after winning basically every major award in college baseball as a junior.
Armed with a blazing fastball and advanced command, Price worked his way through the Rays' minor league system in less than a season, debuting against the New York Yankees in a relief appearance with the Rays on September 14, 2008. The first hit he allowed was a home run to Derek Jeter. Price earned a spot on the Rays' postseason roster in his limited rookie campaign, and collected both a win and a save during the 2008 ALCS. He and the retired Yankees shortstop are entwined in baseball history, as Jeter collected his 3,000th hit off Price in 2011.
In his first full season in 2009, Price struggled with his command, allowing nearly four walks per nine innings and an elevated home run rate. But from 2010 on, Price found his groove, rapidly developing his command and becoming one of the elite starters in the game. Over the past five seasons he's topped 200 innings-pitched, with the exception of a 189 inings-pitched performance in 2013, cementing his reputation as one of Major League Baseball's premier workhorses. As Tigers fans will recall, Price won the 2012 Cy Young award by an extremely narrow and controversial margin over Verlader, compiling a 20-win season with a 2.56 ERA.
The 29-year-old Price is right in his prime at this point. He hit a peak in 2014 by throwing a whopping 248.1 innings. His strikeouts spiked to a career-best 9.82 K/9, coupled with an outstanding 1.38 BB/9 rate. Pounding the strike zone with mid-90s heat, Price is an intimidating presence on the mound, rarely wasting pitches and daring the batter to hit his best stuff. This efficiency, backed by a still superb fastball, regularly gets Price deep into the late innings. Since 2012, only Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright have thrown more complete games.
Price attacks hitters with both two-seam and four-seam fastballs that average 93mph, ramping up to the high 90s when he chooses. Price backs it with an excellent changeup, mixing in an 87 mph cutter and firm 80 mph curveball as well. In 2014, Price began implementing a knuckle-curve grip taught to him by fellow Vanderbilt alum and current A's starter Sonny Gray. It will be interesting to see if he increases it's usage this year as he gains familiarity with the pitch.
Price and the Tigers agreed to a 2015 salary worth $19.75 million dollars in arbitration. He will become a free agent after the 2015 season.
Stats and Projections
The projections here show no signs of decline for Price. After throwing a career-high number of innings in 2014, it's to be expected that he won't quite be able to match that total in 2015. However, no one will be surprised if he's every bit as efficient and durable this season. After posting a spectacular 23.1 K/BB percentage, a little drop in those numbers is perfectly acceptable, even from a man tabbed to again be one of the game's elite pitchers.
Price has repeatedly stated in interviews that his goal is to end every at-bat in three pitches or less. He's extremely aggressive on the mound and will back a hitter off the plate with his fastball without hesitation. In 2014, Price led the league in three-pitch strikeouts by a wide margin, pulling it off 68 times. For 18 of those strikeouts, Price simply reared back and unloaded three consecutive fastballs to dust a hitter. It's also been noted that in 0-2 counts, no one in the game is more likely to take advantage of a batter looking for a breaking ball, or waste a pitch by simply blowing them away with a fastball right through the strike zone. Look for that trend to continue until hitters make him pay for it.
The real question concerning David Price is whether he'll sign a long-term contract with the Tigers, or wait to test the rich green waters of free agency. At this point, both parties have begun contract extension discussions but figures have not yet been agreed upon, and Price is currently asking for more than the team is willing to spend, as BYB's Catherine Slonksnis recently reported. It's one step of many on the way to hopefully reaching a deal and numbers often change, but either way, Price will easily command well over $25 million a year in a long-term deal. The Tigers may have simply wanted to gauge both his interest in committing to the franchise long-term, and a rough estimate of his potential salary requirements.
For that reason, don't put it past owner Mike Illitch to pull the trigger and announce a long-term deal in the coming days. However, it seems more likely that the Tigers will wait to gauge the effectiveness and health of Verlander, before coming to a final decision on making David Price a very wealthy man, and a Tiger for life. Whether such a move would be a wise one is up for debate, as is the equivalent of dangerously red-lining an already enormous payroll. In the meantime, we'll content ourselves by watching another of the game's best pitchers dominate under the banner of the Olde English D.