Dave Dombrowski remembers the night of April 22. Brad Ausmus has never forgotten it, because the Tigers manager believes it was the night that defines David Price.
The gametime temperature was 38 degrees, with a 15 MPH wind that made it feel as if they were in minus Celsius territory. Snow flurries. When Price hit Jacoby Ellsbury with a pitch in the first inning, Ellsbury said “it felt like a giant, icy snowball.”
Price never did get the feel of the baseballs that night. He gave up six runs in the first inning. He left with one out in the top of the third down 8-4 with a 2.1 10 8 8 3 2 line. “It felt like Hanover in February,” Ausmus later said, but when he looked down the bench in the bottom of the ninth inning with the clock approaching 11 pm, there was David Price, bundled up, sitting in the dugout, the Tigers down 13-4, cheering for a comeback.
“David Price is the best teammate of any pitcher I’ve ever been around,” said Ausmus, who caught major league pitchers for 18 seasons and managed them for two. “He gets knocked out early, like that night, and he’s there the rest of the game as a teammate. Don’t think his teammates aren’t aware of it, because they are.”
Appraised of Ausmus’s comment, Joe Maddon said. “I would say that’s true.” Chris Archer, who was the American League East’s only true number one starter before Dombrowski closed the $217M deal with Price Tuesday afternoon, tweeted congratulations and once again credited Price for his mentorship, leadership and friendship. Alex Cobb, another model teammate out of the Tampa stable, also credits him.
This past July, as he waited to hear that his Vanderbilt roomates (and first round picks) Dansby Swanson and Carson Fulmer had signed at the deadline, lefthanded pitcher Ben Bowden talked about how no Vanderbilt starting pitcher would ever leave the bench before his teammates were finished. Not Tyler Beede, a first round pick in 2014. Certainly not Fulmer, the eighth pick last June by the White. “Would never cross my mind,” said Bowden, a Jon Lester lookalike from Lynn, Ma. and Boston’s inner city BASE program who conceivably could be Boston’s selection with the 12 pick this June. “The David Price legacy. He’s back every off-season, and there’s a lot we’ve learned from him.”
So when Dombrowski and John Henry went nearly $30M above the Cardinals and erased Henry’s 2014 edict on long-term contracts to pitchers in their thirties, it completely changed the perception of a team that had finished last two straight years, three out of the last four. Price, who took batting practice with the Tiger and Blue Jays position players daily, loves to hit and preferred the National League, was convinced, by the money and by Dombrowski’s unquestioned presence. Price had made the Cubs and Cardinals aware that his original preference was either of those teams, but neither was going to hand over the highest contract any pitcher had ever received.
The Red Sox thus have their “ace” (which the Royals didn’t have the last two post-seasons and were 90 feet from consecutive world series championships) to be the alpha to a 23-to-28 year old rotation that actually had the second best starters’ ERA in the division the last two months of the season. They have the man who in 2015 went 18-5, led the league in ERA (2.45), was third in innings pitched, fourth in strikeouts, went 9-1 down the stretch to get the Blue Jays into the post-season for the first time since 1993 and did so in a microwave of a park in a division in which four of the five stadiums are relative bandboxes.
In Fenway Park, he has a lifetime 1.95 ERA.
They did not give up a Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts or Blake Swihart. They kept their first draft pick. And they hope that The Price Legacy impacts the development of Eduardo Rodriguez, Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, Trey Ball, Anderson Espinoza, Michael Kopech… because Henry remains adamant about pitching development, and when Dombrowski got to Boston and learned the organization he went out of his way to heap praise on what Ben Cherington had built up with Mike Hazen and company, especially the collaborative work of pitching coach Carl Willis and former major league pitcher and analytics expert Brian Bannister, whom Dombrowski rewarded with a five year deal as Director of Pitching Development.
So Dombrowski used the depth of the farm system to get the Omega, Craig Kimbrel, arguably the best closer in the sport and in his prime twenties. Now he used the franchise’s revenue streams—remember, last weekend the Notre Dame-B.C. football and the Irish hurling games in a 21 hour window created more than $28M in business for the city of Boston and President Sam Kennedy’s Fenway Sports Management is baseball’s Microsoft—to land Price.
This is like Wayne Huizenga laying down $11M for a house in Nantucket and spending a few more mill to build a new clubhouse for the Nantucket Golf Club so he could join; he could, and did.
Consider the alternatives: despite Zack Greinke’s ties to Allard Baird and his close relationship with Bannister, he wasn’t going to sign with the Red Sox and give up hitting (his 2015 OPS was one point lower than Pablo Sandoval’s three year number). Johnny Cueto? Questions. Jordan Zimmerman? Mucho questions, which is why he grabbed the Tiger offer. The next best free agent starter may be Wei Yin Chen, and yesterday morning GMs were claiming he was looking for six years.
Wait ‘til next year? The only front-of-the-rotation in the 2016-17 free agent class is Stephen Strasburg; the Boras Corporation’s book on Strasburg may come in a ten volume set.
In the 2016 crosshairs, the Red Sox can anticipate 200-something innings, and believe that he will develop into an October pitcher as Randy Johnson did, and Clayton Kershaw will. With Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Rodriguez, Owens, Johnson, Joe Kelly Steven Wright, they have the depth to better deal with a Clay Buchholz injury; the last two years, he has made 46 starts for 283 2/3 innings, compared to Masahiro Tanaka’s 44 starts and 290 1/3 innings, and in 2015 Buchholz’s FIP was 2.68, Tanaka’s 3.54.
As Willis and Bannister worked with the starters on their pitch selections and approaches, Rodriguez had a 3.25 ERA the last two months, Porcello (going to a 2-and-4 seam mix with curveball and change) 3.53, Joe Kelly (using slider/change with 96-98) was 8-0, 3.00. Miley threw 193 2/3 innings and was in the top five in the league in the second half in what Bill James and Baseball Info Solutions measures in terms of hitting catchers’ targets. Only the Blue Jays (84) had more quality starts for the ’15 season than the Red Sox (80).
And if Price can stay healthy for four or five years, he could well be an important part of the pitching development program that was building as a concept and practice in progress beginning last February.
Whatever happens with Hanley Ramirez and Sandoval, their position player core is talented, young and very strong in the middle of the field. One National League Player Personnel Director says (Yoan) Moncada was the best prospect I saw last season.” There are those in the Red Sox organization who think Andrew Benintendi’s short swing, defense, and speed could have him contributing in Fenway come September. Who knows?
John Henry took Bud Selig’s calls and allowed Theo Epstein, Cherington, Jason McLeod, Amiel Sawdaye, Mike Rickard and Eddie Romero to spend to get young talent.
Now he has opened his and the FSM wallets to pay David Price more than any pitcher’s ever been paid in an era when Major League Baseball rightfully reports record annual revenues.
During the World Series, the Giants and Red Sox were holding their organizational meetings in the same Scottsdale hotel. The night of the fifth and final game, both groups were together outside in the hotel courtyard watching the Royals and Mets. “It was amazing,” says one Red Sox front office executive. “Six world series in 12 years between us.
“There was a clear feeling between the groups,” says the executive, “that we both were thinking, ‘that’s where we should be.”