Dave Dombrowski has already acknowledged that it’s on his wish list. But the Red Sox president of baseball operations included a caveat.
“Ideally everyone would love to get a top-of-the-rotation starter,” Dombrowski said on the final weekend of the season. “They’re not that easy to find. And you have to be careful that, when you acquire that person, they’re legitimately a top-of-the-rotation starter – not thought of as that but really not.”
Interestingly, two free-agents-to-be with the most compelling credentials as rotation anchors have forged their reputations almost exclusively in the regular season. Blue Jays lefthander David Price and Royals righthander Johnny Cueto will both look to counter a measure of playoff infamy as they prepare to take the mound in these playoffs, Price as the Game 1 starter for Toronto on Thursday and Cueto in Game 2 for Kansas City on Friday.
There are 35 pitchers who have logged at least 1,000 innings since 2010. Of those, Cueto has the second-lowest ERA (2.87) in that time, while Price has the fourth-best mark (2.97).
The postseason, however, has represented a different story. Price transformed Game 7 of the ALCS against the Red Sox out of the bullpen as a rookie in 2008, but since his relief work that year, he has lost all five of his postseason starts with a 4.98 ERA, making him the fourth pitcher ever to lose each of his first five postseason starts (joining Aaron Sele, Charlie Liebrandt, and Doyle Alexander).
Cueto, meanwhile, is 0-2 with a 5.19 ERA in three postseason starts. His October resume is best remembered for the fact that he left a start against the Giants in the first inning in 2012 due to an injury, and for the fact that he dropped a ball while standing on the mound in Pittsburgh while being taunted by Pirates fans in a wild-card game loss in 2013.
So are Price and Cueto truly aces along the lines of what Dombrowski described, pitchers who might be worthy of potential nine-figure contracts this offseason?
“Absolutely,” said Red Sox catcher Ryan Hanigan, who has caught both pitchers and was behind the plate for Cueto’s playoff appearances. Based on his experience with both – Cueto for six seasons in Cincinnati, Price for two-thirds of a season in Tampa Bay – Hanigan said there’s no doubt regarding the stature of either pitcher.
“Those guys, for sure, they’re both at the top of the top tier. They’ve proven it year after year. They’ve taken the ball and they’ve done it. … I think both those guys have earned everything they’re going to get and still have a lot more years to pitch,” said Hanigan. “I love both those guys. I think they’re great people, great teammates, great pitchers. I can’t pick a favorite, but I’d tell you they’re both very accomplished and deservedly so, just because of how they carry themselves and obviously with what they get done on the mound.
“Both those guys, in terms of their stuff, when they’re on, it’s not about when they’re on, it’s about how long they keep, day-in and day-out, month-in and month-out, that top level. You see it from pitchers. They have flashes where they’re unhittable, but how many times can you do that? How many times can you repeat it? That’s what separates those guys in the execution of their stuff.”
|Date of birth||2/15/86||8/26/85|
|Career K/9 innings||7.4||8.6|
|2015 K/9 innings||7.5||9.2|
|Career innings||1420 1/3||1441 2/3|
|2015 innings||212||220 1/3|
Hanigan noted the distinctions. Cueto has the seemingly endless array of pitches – as six offerings. When Hanigan saw Cueto pitching against the Sox for the Royals this year, he noted the righthander had diversified even more, having added to his bread-and-butter bottom-of-the-strike-zone offerings by incorporating a front-door cutter up in the strike zone to righties.
“He’s creating even more ability to get guys out,” said Hanigan. “I feel like he’s getting better and better.”
Despite the glaring postseason struggles, Hanigan shrugged off the notion that Cueto blinked in the face an October spotlight. He acknowledged the deafening noise in the dropped-ball start of 2013 – “You couldn’t talk; you had to walk up and almost yell in someone’s ear – it was crazy, crazy, crazy loud” – but dismissed the notion that his longtime teammate was rattled.
“I think he just dropped the ball. Honestly, it was an intense atmosphere, but I don’t really feel like Johnny was worried about it,” said Hanigan, who likewise viewed Cueto’s career body of work as more representative than his struggles since being traded to the Royals (4-7, 4.76 ERA in 13 starts). “I think Johnny’s the man. He’s got great stuff. He’d be a quality guy to have on the mound in any situation. The demeanor, the makeup, everything – he does it right. He’s a gamer. He loves to pitch. He loves to compete. It’s kind of how he’s always been.”
Cueto’s success is a product in no small part of his unpredictability – the accordion-like expansion and contraction of a diverse arsenal, a Tiant-esque turn to hide the ball, the inventive alterations to the pace of his delivery.
Whereas Cueto is a constant study in changing tempo and rhythm, Price pounds a hard, steady drumbeat of attack.
“You know what his repertoire is, but the way he attacks with his tempo, his command, his consistency, and his explosive delivery, he has the ability to not let you feel like you can drive the ball,” Hanigan said of Price, an absolute force (9-1, 2.30 ERA in 11 starts) since the Blue Jays acquired him from the Tigers at this year’s trade deadline. “He’s smart in terms of really reading the hitters and how to pitch to guys.”
The lefthander, who turned 30 in August, had slightly better velocity this year (95 mph on both his four- and two-seam fastball, according to BrooksBaseball.net) than in either 2014 and 2013. Yet in recent years, he transitioned from a slider to a cutter and opened up the other side of the plate by developing a changeup that has become his primary swing-and-miss offering.
Price has thus shown both the ability to sustain stuff and, simultaneously, to adapt, a compelling formula for teams that contemplate whether to invest $200 million in his services this offseason.
“I do think he’s going to be able to sustain being a power pitcher into his mid- to upper-30s. Absolutely. However, if all of a sudden his ability to pitch with power went away, there’s no doubt in my mind that he would adapt to that and become the David Price of Mark Buehrles, if that’s what he had to do,” said Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey. “He’d learn how to pitch in whatever manner he had to in order to be successful because of his aptitude, because of the way he loves the game. I think absolutely, positively we’ll be watching him throw mid-90s at 36, 37 years old. But if that weren’t the case, I think we’ll see a very, very, very productive guy until he’s 37, 38 – or even longer if he wants to.”
Of course, while both Price and Cueto have already proven themselves in many respects throughout their careers, both now have a chance to solidify – or diminish – their reputations as potential front-of-the-rotation anchors with their postseason performances. The Red Sox, along with other teams in need of an alpha starter, no doubt will be watching closely. So will Hanigan, with the expectation that his former teammates will both excel this month.
“When it comes down to the time when it’s their turn to take the ball in a big situation, they both have that look in the eye that, ‘I’m going to get it done,’” said Hanigan. “They exude confidence in their stuff. They both have great qualities in terms of things that make them great pitchers.”
More by Alex Speier
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.