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How Tampa Bay Rays Moves in 2009 Impacted Toronto Blue Jays in 2015

It is uncommon (though not completely unheard of) for a single player to be among the best players moved on consecutive trading deadlines. Additionally for David Price, who was moved at both the 2014 and 2015 trading deadlines, he spent the offseason following the 2013 season wondering if he would be moved then. He wasn’t, but he was for the first time once the Rays deemed themselves non-contenders by the end of July 2014.

However, it is worth noting what happened to David Price early in his career in Tampa Bay that had a direct impact on the new teams he would end up playing for in both 2014 and 2015.

Price, the first overall pick in the 2007 draft, made a huge splash with Tampa Bay in 2008, particularly in the postseason as he picked up six crucial outs in the ALCS versus Boston. He would go on to allow one earned run in 3.1 innings in the World Series, and even though the Rays lost to the Phillies, Price’s future with Tampa Bay looked bright. And then, before the 2009 season started was when the wheels were set in motion that ultimately landed Price in Toronto in 2015.

While not everyone in baseball views this as a problem, before the 2009 season Tampa Bay announced that their young Phenom would start the 2009 season in the minor leagues. While Tampa Bay trotted out the standard baseball-wide company line of “he needs more seasoning before we feel he’s ready,” some suspicious Rays’ fans felt that they were simply keeping his service time down just enough to earn one more year of team control before he entered his free agency year (a tactic the Giants were accused of with Buster Posey and the Cubs with Kris Bryant, among other teams).

It’s certainly a risky move when teams make employ this tactic. After he was called up in May 2010 Posey was one of the best position players for a team that needed to win its final game of the regular season to win the division (and would go on to win the World Series). Time will tell if the Cubs will regret not bringing up Bryant earlier in 2015 as they currently find themselves in the thick of the Wild Card hunt.

To be fair, it’s not always a completely indefensible move. Teams are always expected to have a roster of available players that puts them in the best position to win games, though missing a few games early in the season, when a player is still raw, can be a worthwhile tradeoff for one more year of team control when a player is most likely to be in his prime around the age of 27 or 28.

Furthermore, it is a more defensible move for a pitcher than for a positional player. A young pitcher needs consistent work to develop and yet also not throw more than his arm can handle at a young age. If a team doesn’t have an available roster slot the player is better off spending a couple more months in Triple-A than going days and even weeks between meaningful appearances with the major league team. Additionally, a young pitcher can be at risk of overthrowing the first time he faces big league competition. In short, cost savings and giving a pitcher time to develop are not necessarily mutually exclusive goals.

And it’s not as though David Price was setting the world on fire quite yet in 2009. In eight appearances in Triple-A he had a K/9 rate of 9.17 but also a BB/9 rate of 4.72, the latter of which on the surface screams “in need of a little more work.” And when he did make it to the big leagues he made 23 starts and finished the season with an ERA of 4.42, and as late as mid-August had an ERA north of 5.00.

On the other hand, more starts for Price in 2009 may have meant less starts for Andy Sonnanstine, whose ERA at the end of May was 7.66 through 10 starts. Given that the Rays finished 19 games out of first and 11 games out of the Wild Card, keeping Price in the minors likely didn’t keep the Rays out of the playoffs that year.

What it did do, however, is give the Rays one more year of team control over Price. Had he started the season with the Rays, he would have conceivably earned enough service time to become a free agent following the 2014 season. Instead, he was eligible for arbitration four times, with the first time following the 2011 season as a “Super Two.”

What might have happened had Price earned enough playing time in 2009 to ultimately later become a free agent after the 2014 season? A few possibilities…

  • For starters, he would not have been on the trading block at the 2015 trading deadline.
  • He may have still been on the trading block at the 2014 trading deadline, but the Rays would have likely received less value from him as he would have been merely a two month rental (excluding October) instead of the eight month rental (excluding Octobers) he was when the Tigers traded for him.
  • He may have been on the trading block during the 2013 trading deadline.
  • He may have been the subject of offseason rumors following the 2012 season instead of the 2013 season.
  • He would have joined the free agent class of 2014 with the likes of Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, potentially driving down the ultimate costs of those pitchers with one more elite pitcher on the market.
  • He would not be part of the pitching-rich free agent class of 2015.

These are all of course hypotheticals as no one will ever know what would have happened to Price or the Rays had Tampa Bay played their cards differently in 2009. However, history does tell us they probably made a wise move with their calculated risk at the start of that season, and that risk had a domino effect on multiple teams and multiple free agents in the years to come.

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