By Terry Cushman – @cushmanMLB
In December 2015, David Price became the first major transaction of the “Dave Dombrowski era” in Boston, who had just been named President of Baseball Operations. This designation gave him complete control of all roster decisions. Larry Lucchino mutually parted ways with the organization in 2015, and Ben Cherington followed him out the door once his decision making power had shifted to Dombrowski. Despite the imminent second straight last place finish that loomed ahead, Cherington only 18 months earlier was celebrating an improbable World Series win in 2013.
From the very outset of his introductory press conference, the new Red Sox President made it clear he intended to target an ace level pitcher. David Price headlined a relatively deep free agency class, which also included the likes of Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmerman, and Zack Greinke.
Price was a popular pick among Boston fans. He won the American League Cy Young award three years earlier. Had a career ERA under 3.00, was even a Cy Young finalist in 2015 after arriving via trade to the Toronto Blue Jays, and helped them earn their first post season berth in well over a decade.
However, there was a large faction of Red Sox fans who had some concerns. The long time former Tampa Bay Ray was 0-7 as a starter in the playoffs. Including a terrible performance weeks earlier in the 2015 post season. He had a knack for public outbursts, lashing out on local and national beat writers who rightfully criticized his dismal performances.
The last thing the Fenway faithful wanted was another Josh Beckett, John Lackey, or Adrian Gonzales type player, all of whom were very polarizing figures, and often embattled with media relations.
Nonetheless, Dombrowski in the end chose David Price above everyone else in the free agency class. It was a break from Boston’s long standing unofficial policy of never signing a starting pitcher to a long term deal who was aged 30 or above. The cost for signing him was franchise record $217,000,000 for seven years. The highest previous contract was $160,000,000 signed by Manny Ramirez in 2001.
Many Red Sox fans were excited about the signing, and the vibe among many of the skeptics was, “at least they made a big splash.” Especially since everyone still had a bitter taste in their mouths after losing out on Jon Lester the season before.
Following a shocking last place finish in the 2014 season, one of the primary objectives for then G.M. Ben Cherington was to address the anemic offense the Red Sox put forth that season. They had acquired Yoenis Cespedes in the Jon Lester trade with the Oakland Athletics, but he only had one year remaining on his contract, with no guarantees he would agree to an extension. So the top Red Sox executive signed Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval early in the hot stove season.
Boston long had a black hole at third base. Will Middlebrooks showed immense potential after roaring out of the gates in 2012. Unfortunately however, a wrist injury stopped all of his momentum by the summer of his rookie season, and he would never again regain form. Nagging injuries, and frustrating inconsistencies ultimately sent the once “untouchable” prospect to the San Diego Padres for a journeyman backup catcher named Ryan Hanigan. Even before Middlebrooks flamed out, Kevin Youkilis had reached his mid 30’s, and similarly lacked the durability to continue his career. Mike Lowell also served out the twilight of his prime before retiring after 2010. The Red Sox had no immediate viable options for third base from within their current system. Other than maybe Travis Shaw, who John Farrell had no idea what to do with.
Enter Pablo Sandoval. Known affectionately by San Franciscans as “The Kung Fu Panda,” Sandoval was a three time World Series Champion, including the series MVP in 2012. His regular season numbers were not exactly eye popping, but still solid in terms of production. It was in the post season when his performance went from David to Goliath. The Venezulan native has a career .344 batting average, and .389 on base percentage in the month of October.
In 2014 specifically, Sandoval hit .400 in the NLCS against the Cardinals over five games. And a slightly more impressive .429 in seven games of the World Series against the Kansas City Royals. So it wasn’t a shock to many that the Red Sox front office would aggressively pursue him during the immediate days following his post season heroics.
In the end, they got their wish. The 28 year old former Giant agreed to a five year deal worth $95,000,000. It wasn’t a cheap contract, but it was far from a ridiculous eight year deal that other top free agents had landed in recent years. Was his weight a concern? Honestly it wasn’t for me. He had been adequate his entire career, and was still a couple years away from turning 30. It’s not like he was going to immediately fall off the proverbial cliff was he? Right?
There are many things to consider when trying to decide which player was the worst signing of the two.
A. The contract of Price is more than DOUBLE the value of Sandoval’s.
B. Price is still with the team. Sandoval was released.
C. Each player was signed by a different executive.
D. Boston still won the division in 2017, without either being a major factor.
It would be easy immediately zero in on Sandoval as the worst of the two. He is no longer with the team, and the Red Sox are still paying him $20M anually to play elsewhere. The hefty third baseman also has been the least productive of the two, especially having never played a full season before he was released.
Sandoval’s weight had often come in to question. He showed up in 2016 grossly overweight. He was so heavy, Red Sox owner John Henry awkwardly felt compelled to simply lie to the media, and insist his third baseman was 17% body fat, which obviously didn’t pass the straight face test. After scuffling offensively and defensively, Sandoval underwent shoulder surgery and was shutdown for the rest of the season. He returned in 2017, was released early in the summer after he simply wasn’t performing at the major league level.
Despite the epic failure, it’s hard to place a ton blame on Ben Cherington. Nobody expected the Panda’s decline to virtually be instantaneous. His recent numbers were strong, and his five year deal wasn’t quite as long term as some other painful contracts. Unfortunately for Cherington, he eventually learned the hard way that nobody would be willing to bail him out like the Dodgers did with Beckett, Crawford, and Gonzalez a few years earlier.
As for David Price, there was plenty of information on why he might be a very negative fit for Boston. Unlike Sandoval, Price had never been a post season hero for any of the four teams he has played for. In fact, he had always been a major disappointment.
From a monetary value, $95M for Sandoval vs. $217M for Price seriously underscores the level of expectations for both players. Especially considering the latter is on the books for a total of seven years if he chooses not to opt out, which certainly seems like an extreme long shot at this point.
When Panda was designated for assignment, it was unfortunate, but everyone knew Rafael Devers was nearing a possible major league debut. Not to mention guys like Mike Moustakas, Todd Frazier, and Eduardo Nunez could be had relatively cheap. And all of them were mostly capable of being as productive as Sandoval was expected to, at least in the regular season.
But how do you adequately replace a $217M pitcher if things don’t go well? It’s not like Price is Matt Harvey, making much less money, and on the last year of his deal. There is literally no way to replace the player he was hyped up to be.
The fact of the matter is really quite brutal. Three years after signing his record contract, Price still does not have a post season win. He got lit up in his only start, which took place in 2016 against the Cleveland Indians. His performance was so bad, Mike Napoli actually stole a base on him during his ALDS game two start. Nagging elbow injuries limited him in 2017 to a relief role in the post season, and to this very day he doesn’t not appear able to throw a curve ball.
If the lackluster on-field performance isn’t enough, Price was involved in probably the biggest controversy of his career, and certainly the biggest in recent Red Sox memory. In late June he verbally ambushed hall of famer Dennis Eckersley on a team charter plane, which eventually turned into a national catastrophe. It’s ironic that it took place a few months after David Ortiz had retired, and not while he was present. Boston’s $217M man had no interest in apologizing for the remainder of the season, nor taking any accountability.
All of the red flags which flew back when David Price signed his long term contract with the Red Sox in December of 2015 still fly in May of 2018. Only now, factoring in his health, there are more red flags. And they could not be any more prominent.
Thus it is my opinion that his contract was far more damaging.
ICYMI: EPISODE 43 OF THE AVIDBOSTON PODCAST!!!
RED SOX VS. YANKEES PREVIEW!!! MY CONTINUED RANT WITH MOOKIE LEADING OFF!!! IS THE PRICE CONTRACT WORSE THAN SANDOVALS?
Also available on iTunes!