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Revisiting the David Price free agent pursuit

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The Cardinals have been praised throughout 2016 for passing on Jason Heyward, but what about the other marquee free agent they pursued last offseason?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Last offseason brought several high-profile players to the free agent market, and according to many, including MLB Trade Rumors, the top two players available were David Price, most recently of the Toronto Blue Jays, and Jason Heyward, most recently of the St. Louis Cardinals. On December 1, Price signed with the Boston Red Sox, and on December 11, Heyward signed with the Chicago Cubs, despite many a plea from St. Louisans.

The Cardinals tried to re-sign Jason Heyward, but in the end, the Cubs produced an offer which appealed to him more, thanks to some combination of player-friendly opt-outs and an exciting and talented team which, despite what has been by all accounts a disappointing 2016 season from Heyward, currently stands at an eye-popping 93 wins and 53 losses.

As for David Price, according to Bob Nightengale and others, Price believed as recently as the morning before he signed with the Red Sox that he would sign with the Cardinals. By most accounts, the Cardinals finished second in their pursuit of the two blockbuster free agents which they most coveted.

While many fans were disappointed (this is hardly unusual—superstar players are fun to have), much has been made of the Cardinals’ reluctance to break the bank for Jason Heyward given his pedestrian 2016. While Heyward’s defense has been more or less commensurate with his recent history, and he is still generally regarded as an elite defensive right fielder, his offense has cratered—his walks and hard-hit ball percentage are down, his strikeouts and soft-hit ball percentage are up, and his extra-base power, long considered a disappointment, has all but disappeared.

Heyward’s Wins Above Replacement, of both the Baseball Reference and FanGraphs variety, is below 1, and he certainly has not been worth the contract which the Cubs gave him so far. And while there has been a fair share of exaggeration of the substitution effect of Stephen Piscotty (although Piscotty has certainly been better than Heyward, it is not as though the Cardinals were going to release Piscotty had Heyward re-signed), their unwillingness to invest in Heyward has paid off.

Less frequently mentioned, however, is David Price. There is a fairly obvious explanation for this—since Price never played for the Cardinals, there was less of a sense that the Cardinals “lost” him—but in both cases, the Cardinals made a run at a free agent and did not sign him. And while Jason Heyward has been a below-average Major League player in 2016, David Price has been at least close to the superstar that the Red Sox expected him to be.

In 205 23 innings this season, Price has a 16-8 record, with a 3.81 ERA, a 3.36 fielding-independent ERA, and a 3.38 xFIP. And while this is his highest ERA since 2009 and his highest FIP and xFIP since 2010, his player value metrics remain rather high as he continues to compile a high innings total while pitching at a high level in an increasingly offensive run environment—his 85 ERA- (essentially, his ERA is 15% better than league average) and 80 FIP- (his FIP is 20% better than league average) are in line with his 2013 and 2014 production level.

By Baseball Reference WAR, Price has been worth 3.5 wins. By FanGraphs WAR, he has been worth 4.6 wins. While he has not quite duplicated his incredible 2015 (6.0 bWAR, 6.4 fWAR), this is a rather unrealistic standard by which to hold any player, even one making $30 million this season. David Price has been very good, and he has been undeniably better than the Cardinals’ David Price contingency plan, Mike Leake.

Like Price, Mike Leake’s ERA is lower than one would expect given his peripheral statistics, but Leake has been an inferior pitcher no matter how you slice it—he currently stands at 0.4 bWAR and 2.1 fWAR. In 2016, David Price is earning $18 million more and has been worth 3.1 more wins per Baseball Reference and 2.5 more wins per FanGraphs.

There are ramifications beyond 2016 to consider when evaluating the two contracts, and I’ll get to those momentarily, but just for 2016, is 3.1 or 2.5 additional wins worth $18 million? According to FanGraphs, the value of an additional win on the free agent market is a bit over $8 million; extrapolating from their own player valuation metric, 2.5 wins are worth more than the $18 million salary difference, and if we are to believe Baseball Reference’s valuation system, Price is an even more obvious upgrade, even adjusting for salary, over Leake.

For some teams, despite this, Mike Leake would be a better value in practical terms. A very good team, such as the Chicago Cubs, would sail into the playoffs with or without either of these pitchers, and no single player would be able to salvage the seasons of the Atlanta Braves or Minnesota Twins, so there is very little marginal value to that additional salary. For the Cardinals, however, the difference between Mike Leake (whose performance I have defended) and David Price (who is nevertheless clearly better) could mean the difference between missing the postseason and making the National League Wild Card Game. And that’s not even considering that the Cardinals would have David Price as an option to start that game.

In the short term, the Cardinals would have been better in 2016 with David Price than with Mike Leake. Going forward, the math becomes a bit murkier. With half a month remaining in his first season in Boston, FanGraphs has David Price worth $37 million. Like Jason Heyward, Price has an opt-out three years into his contract, and over those three years, Price will make $90 million.

If Price stays healthy (always a question mark, though he has done a good job of this to this point in his career) and has a normal aging curve (about the same level of production in 2017, perhaps some slight decline in 2018), he would almost certainly opt out of his contract—the rate of salary inflation could make the $127 million on the remaining four years of his contract a relative bargain, even at 33.

But even if Price has a more precipitous decline than expected, he does not opt out, and the final four years are an overpay, it would take a fair amount of decline for David Price to not be among the five best starting pitchers on the Cardinals. Meanwhile, Mike Leake is relatively close to falling out of the top five already. With Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, Tyler Lyons, Tim Cooney, and Marco Gonzales (as well as the 2017 return of Lance Lynn), the actual value of Mike Leake to the Cardinals, with numerous above replacement level alternatives at their disposal, may be lower than his WAR suggests.

Ultimately, the Leake contract is safer, for all of the same reasons that any contract is safer than any contract which is more expensive. But in retrospect, it would have likely benefited the Cardinals to have offered more to David Price. Perhaps in the end, the Red Sox would have offered more, and perhaps it would reach a point where the risk to the Cardinals is not worth the reward, but while Mike Leake is a perfectly adequate pitcher, he lacks the potential for transcendence that David Price had and has. And it is worth paying a premium for transcendence.