The Chicago Cubs could be aggressive shoppers in the free agent market this offseason, so it’s worth taking a look at some of the players who could be of potential interest to the team. These players present possible fits for the Cubs, at a range of potential costs and talent levels..
Previously: Johnny Cueto
Performance in 2015
David Price becomes the second pitcher tackled in this series, after Johnny Cueto, because I suspect the rumors tying Price to the Cubs will not end until the moment he signs a contract this winter. And, aside from all of the rumors we’ve heard over the past few years, it’s not hard to see why: David Price has been a beast his entire career and 2015 was no different. Although he had seen a bit of a drop in velocity over the past few seasons, Price has continued to be his same old dominant self.
In 2015, Price was a work horse, throwing more than 200 innings for the fifth time in his last six seasons. His ERA (2.45) was fourth best in baseball, behind just Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke, and his peripherals supported an “ace-level” distinction. Over his 32 starts last season, Price had a career-consistent .290 BABIP, a higher than normal, but not outrageous 78.6% left on base rate, a 25.3% strikeout rate and a very solid 5.3% walk rate. If you had to find something that wasn’t quite as elite as normal, his ground ball rate (40.4%) was the lowest of his career. And if you had to find something that suggested good fortune, his HR/FB rate (7.8%) was the third lowest of his career.
On the other hand, his soft contract rate (17.0%) was the highest it’s been since 2011, his medium contact rate is nearly exactly what it’s been for most of his career, and he has lowered his hard contact rate in each of the last two seasons. If you were looking for an excuse the Cubs could point to during contract negotiations, it won’t be his performance in 2015. He was very, very good.
Performance Before 2015
If you’ve been paying attention over the past few years, you’ll know that David Price has consistently been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. In his first truly full season in the majors (2010), Price, who was just 24 at the time, finished second in the American League CY Young voting, with a 2.72 ERA and 4.2 WAR over 208.2 IP. Although his peripherals weren’t as impressive (though they were still quite strong), he improved on nearly all of his numbers over the next two seasons and won the AL CY Young Award two years later. That year, he finished with a 2.56/3.05/3.12 ERA/FIP/xFIP and 5.0 WAR over 211.0 innings, at just 26 years old. He struggled through some injuries in 2013 (more on that in a bit), but bounced right back in 2014 and 2015, accumulating 12.5 WAR across the two seasons (468.2 total innings). David Price was good, David Price is good.
Projection for 2016 and Beyond
David Price is a good bet to continue a heavy workload with above-average to elite levels of success for the foreseeable future (aaaaand he’s jinxed). His injuries are two full seasons behind him and he has otherwise maintained strong peripherals, while being a model of consistency. Although it’s unfair to believe he’ll be the pitcher he was from ages 24-29, a moderate drop off in performance would still result in one of the better pitchers in baseball.
Most importantly, though, Price has shown he can be effective without a plus-plus fastball (though it was 94 MPH in 2015, up almost a full MPH from 2014). Losing velocity is one of the more unavoidable effects of aging and is often the most difficult hurdle for pitchers to overcome. His ability to alter his pitching style to adjust for lower velocity bodes well for continued success later into his 30s. Steamer agrees, and is pegging him for a 5.1 WAR 2016 season, with 215.0 IP and a 2.98 ERA (3.17 FIP).
Possible Contract/Existing Rumors
There have long been connections (trade rumors, public comments, former coaches, etc.) between the talented left-hander and the Chicago Cubs, and we’ve just seen the beginning. While the Cubs will be tied to nearly all available starters this offseason, Price’s story will undoubtedly be the loudest. Although there may be some forced narratives along the way (and hidden motives), there is a very real fit there (more on that in a moment) and I suspect Price’s journey will be an Obsessive Watch in no time. Unfortunately, no matter how strongly the Cubs (or even Price) want to get together, the numbers may not line up. Unlike Cueto before him, Price certainly increased the already lofty contract expectations with yet another dominant season in 2015. Without blinking, I can tell you that $200M and seven years will be where his contract negotiations start (whether he gets that much, remains to be seen. (For what it’s worth, FanGraphs Crowd Sourcing project pegged him at 7 years $196M, after I wrote this article. That’s a heck of a commitment.)
In 2013, David Price spent six weeks on the disabled list with a strained triceps, yet still managed to complete 186.2 innings in MLB, in addition to 7.1 innings while rehabbing in the minor leagues. Even when he’s injured, the guy throws almost 200 innings. While he has some serious mileage on his arm, I think his track record of health and consistency is more important. Lately, we’ve learned that counting innings isn’t the most effective way to track a pitchers durability (or future performance), so I’m not overly concerned that he’s going to suddenly break down. In fact, I’d say that his heavy, but consistent workload over the past few years is actually a sign of encouragement.
At 30 years old, Price is neither on the younger side nor older side for a first time free agent.
Then there is, of course, the Joe Maddon connection, with the Cubs’ manager having previously been Price’s long-time manager in Tampa Bay. Money talks, but comfort and familiarity are non-zero considerations.
Fit For Cubs
This is a particularly hard section to articulate, because on his own, David Price is a fit for every single team in baseball. So, instead of determining how exactly the Cubs would manage to fit one of the best pitchers in baseball into their starting rotation, let’s use his expected contract as a reason why a marriage might not be in the cards.
Generally speaking, a $200M, seven-year deal is pretty tough to swallow, even for a guy as good as Price, because committing $200M to a 30-year-old pitcher can really limit what else you can do in an offseason (or three). When you add in the fact that the Cubs already have over $120M more committed to another left-handed starting pitcher over 30 (Jon Lester), things get a bit tricky. While Price undoubtedly makes this rotation formidable, there might be a more effective use of $200M.
Consider the scenario where the Cubs sign a lesser, but still quality, pitcher to a contract closer to $125M. They could then (theoretically) put the additional $75M-$100M towards another starting pitcher or center fielder (for one example), while using their other assets (prospects, young players) to fill the remaining hole via trade. If the proposal, then, is David Price and a trade for a center fielder vs. signing a lesser pitcher, signing a center fielder, and trading for a young pitcher, are you as quick to pull the trigger on $200M for Price? (Obviously, trades/free agency isn’t guaranteed, but think of this as a thought experiment).
Wins can be collected multiple ways, and, while there’s value in consolidating them into one player, you can’t ignore the value in mitigating risk and fulfilling more needs with the same amount of assets. Either way, we are sure to hear Price’s name connected to the Cubs multiple times this offseason. If he ends up with the Cubs and $200M, I’ll be happy. If they pass and use the funds elsewhere, I’ll be happy with that, too. There are so many upcoming options, so try not to get your heart too set on any one outcome.