Setting caution aside, Red Sox went all in for an ace
There was little effort at secrecy — actually, make that none — as a rather unusual dinner party took their places at the table at the Southern Restaurant in Nashville on Nov. 19.
Red Sox principal owner John Henry was there, along with much of the team’s top brass, including president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, team president Sam Kennedy, and manager John Farrell.
And soon, the Sox entourage was joined in the restaurant’s private dining area by the object of their affections and hopes — David Price, one of the game’s most dominant pitchers, and his agent, Bo McKinnis.
Somehow, the summit went unnoticed.
“The fact that it was not on Twitter, not reported, was shocking,” said Kennedy.
Shocking, too, was how overtly the Sox were signalling that their operating philosophy had changed, and had to change, after two dismal years in a row in last place. An organization that had long been squeamish about long-term commitments to pitchers in their 30s was determined to land a 30-year-old who was also the biggest fish in the free agent market, even if it meant resetting the bar on the largest contract ever given to a pitcher.
Over the next two hours, many topics were aired. Price wanted some reassurance about the state of the Red Sox’ home clubhouse and training facilities given that the visiting clubhouse in the 103-year-old stadium is, in McKinnis’s words, “the size of [Price’s] bathroom at home.”
Farrell, a former big league pitcher and pitching coach, asked Price to talk about why he had altered his pitching repertoire from year to year, even after he had established himself as a force on the mound. Once a pitcher who relied almost exclusively on a fastball and slider, Price now draws on a mix of pitches, including an excellent change-up.
Henry (who also owns the Globe) and Kennedy outlined the long-term financial resources available to the team — sufficient to field lineups with perennial World Series ambitions — while Henry spoke to his yearning to have Price anchor more title runs.
“ ‘We have the ability to sign you right now for X amount of dollars, and we can still add more pieces to that,’ ” Price recalled Henry saying.
“That’s very appealing,’’ Price commented on Henry’s pitch, “to be a part of that.”
For his part, Price showed great interest in the details of the Sox organization, including its farm system. What players might come up from the minor leagues in 2016? Which prospects, even those years from the big leagues, could become franchise cornerstones?
What the pitcher heard that evening made an impression.
“The moment that dinner was over,” said McKinnis, “David and I hopped in a car to go home. The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Well, that made me want to be a Red Sox.’ ”
Before the courtship
Even before the end of the 2015 season, the Sox had set their sights on Price, as the ace who could stabilize a starting rotation that had turned in one horrific start after another in April and May, sabotaging the Sox’ chances.
“It was clear that we needed an ace,” said Sox chairman Tom Werner. “To go into next season without solving that problem was not acceptable.”
Dombrowski had little doubt about the solution. As the president/GM of the Tigers, he had traded for Price in July 2014. The two had spent a year together, with Price proving not just a dominant pitcher but also an extraordinary teammate and leader. The respect proved mutual.
“The moment that the Tigers let Dave go, it actually crossed my mind when he got over here that Dave’s there and this is our big offseason and I can see the marriage happening,” said McKinnis.
At the start of the offseason, McKinnis and Price sketched out a list of the teams to target and avoid. The keys were less financial — there was little doubt he would be richly paid — and more about long-term competitiveness, style of play, and the quality of the various ballparks, facilities, and training staffs.
Price’s initial list included five National League teams — the Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, and Nationals — and six American League teams, with the Red Sox joined by the Royals, Twins, and Price’s three former teams, the Blue Jays, Rays, and Tigers.
The mid-summer courtship and hiring of Dombrowski, meanwhile, put Price prominently on the Sox’ radar. From his first conversations in August with Henry, Werner, and Red Sox limited partner Mike Gordon about the possibility of coming to Boston, the first name Dombrowski mentioned was Price.
The Sox hadn’t lost their wariness about the risks of big contracts for pitchers in their 30s. But the team had analyzed the cost of trading for a young top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher and determined that the cost would be, in general manager Mike Hazen’s words, “exorbitant.” Trades for top starters weren’t available without sacrificing players such as shortstop Xander Bogaerts or center fielder Mookie Betts. Another rising young talent, Blake Swihart, was often viewed by teams with ace-caliber pitchers to trade as a secondary piece in a deal rather than a primary one.
Solving the pitching problem threatened to open up gaping holes on the major league roster, sacrificing a star to gain one.
The only way to avoid that dilemma? A plunge into the free agent market, where the Sox would be required to spend big but would keep their young core intact.
“I’m not ever going to say we’re not going to trade someone. But gosh, there’s a great core of young players here that we’d like to see grow and be part of this for a long time,” said Dombrowski.
The team reached the conclusion that it would dive headlong into the most expensive depths of free agent waters after analyzing the matter from numerous perspectives.
■ Kennedy looked at the team’s revenues and financial health to determine whether it could afford the commitment.
■ Director of pitching analysis Brian Bannister examined the pitch mixes and deliveries of potentially available pitchers and compared them to pitchers who sustained dominance into their 30s in an effort to identify the available pitchers who represented the best age-defying bets.
■ Director of major league operations Zack Scott and the Sox’ analytics team led a study comparing the cost of trading for an ace (which required affixing a dollar figure to prospects and making performance projections) to signing one, delivering a memo to Dombrowski and Hazen toward the end of the World Series that Dombrowski then presented to the owners a couple of days later.
■ At a meeting of the top members of the baseball operations staff and the team’s pro scouts in Scottsdale, Ariz., in late October, Dombrowski sought the feedback of his evaluators about preferred offseason targets. In an unusually deep year for free agent pitchers, with options such as Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lackey, Jeff Samardzija, and Hisashi Iwakuma available, two names stood out: Price and Zack Greinke, who had the right to opt out of his six-year, $147 million deal with the Dodgers.
The discussion was spirited, but all signs pointed to Price, given Dombrowski’s personal familiarity with him and Price’s history of success in the American League. The team explored other options, with members of the front office (but not Henry) meeting with Greinke and Jordan Zimmermann, but Price was clearly Plan A.
Dombrowski set up a meeting of the baseball operations department with McKinnis at the GM meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., on Nov. 9 to 10, a meeting that ran 75 to 90 minutes; both sides emerged with a clear interest in advancing the talk.
The Sox were particularly intrigued by McKinnis’s frequent mention of Price’s interest in staying in the American League, with the possibility of becoming the first pitcher since the 1973 advent of the DH to reach the Hall of Fame while spending the entirety of his career in the junior circuit.
“The amount [McKinnis] talked about the importance of the American League to David stood out,” said Hazen.
Price spoke to the issue at his Fenway press conference Friday.
“My main goal every year is to win the World Series, but my goal before I signed my professional contract is to go to the Hall of Fame,” said Price. “And to do that while spending your entire career in the American League is pretty special. I’m not sure how many times it’s been done. It’s something I want to be a part of.”
McKinnis also made clear at the Boca Raton meeting that Price wasn’t aiming to drag out negotiations. He had an idea of the teams he’d consider. He hoped to identify his bidders around Thanksgiving and to choose his team before the start of the Winter Meetings, which convene Monday in Nashville.
The Red Sox offered to have Price visit Boston. But given his familiarity with the city, that seemed unnecessary.
And so, the decision was made to have the six Red Sox officials visit Price for that critical dinner in Nashville.
The Red Sox wasted little time in moving from the good feelings of their face-to-face meeting to a formal offer that made their interest tangible.
Within a day or two, the team made an initial proposal: seven years, $200 million, a sum that would make Price the third pitcher (after Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer) to break the $200 million mark. The sides agreed to resume conversations after Thanksgiving.
By that point, the market for Price had crystallized. Of the AL teams on his list, the Royals, Rays, and Twins weren’t going to have the resources to bid; the Blue Jays moved for mid-rotation options Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ; and the Tigers moved aggressively after the top pitcher in the second tier of free agents, signing righthander Zimmermann to a five-year, $110 million deal.
Zimmermann was one of three pitchers Red Sox officials met with, along with Greinke and Price. Price, however, was the only one who met with Henry, and the only one who received an offer. Zimmerman’s removal from the board, in turn, acted as a market catalyst.
“When Zimmermann signed, that kind of started it. It took one guy off,” said Dombrowski. “Even though there are a lot of guys out there, there are going to be some clubs that are left searching. . . . It just starts moving along, and you don’t want to be the one that’s out there left without getting one guy you really want.”
Price’s market was down to five teams. According to a major league source, the Red Sox were the lone AL bidder, while the lefthander received offers from the Giants, Dodgers, Cubs, and Cardinals.
McKinnis approached the Sox with a counterproposal last Monday evening. But based on the state of the bids that day — with the Red Sox at $200 million — it wasn’t clear that Price was going to sign with Boston. Indeed, the pitcher appeared to be leaning toward the Cardinals, who had a $180 million bid on the table and had given the impression that they might be willing to up the ante.
“[St. Louis] was the direction we were going in. They were being quite aggressive with us. They were anxious to move forward,” said McKinnis. “It had nothing to do with liking or disliking the Red Sox. It was more just the courtship by the Cardinals.”
On Tuesday, Casey Close, the representative for Greinke, informed the Sox that the righthander wanted to know if the Sox planned to make a formal offer.
Not yet. Dombrowski demonstrated what one team official characterized as “tunnel vision,” wanting to see if he could bring Plan A to a successful resolution before pivoting if necessary to Plan B.
And so, on Tuesday morning the Red Sox upped their bid to $210 million. As McKinnis and Price discussed the offer, they saw a finish line.
“In my talks with David, we were like, ‘What are we waiting on?’ ” said McKinnis. “We love Dave Dombrowski. We want to be in the AL East. Let’s go.’”
The deal could be done, McKinnis said, for $217 million over seven years, the largest guarantee ever for a pitcher, surpassing Kershaw’s seven-year, $215 million deal.
Dombrowski received authorization from the owners to hit the mark. A few minutes before 5 p.m., the Red Sox president of baseball operations looped back to McKinnis and hung up. Deal done. And a new precedent set.
“The one place we had a need for was at the top of the rotation, and there are exceptions to any rule and certainly this is one of the most exceptional pitchers,” said Henry. “We have a tremendous tradition here of Pedro [Martinez], Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, and other great pitchers who’ve come through here. This is an exciting time where we’re going to see one of the best pitchers in baseball every five days.”
The Red Sox understood that they might be outbidding the field — and perhaps leaving it in the dust. Yet in their minds, it was better to go all in rather than risk losing Price because they held a line.
That was particularly the case given the possibility that if they missed on Price, there was no guarantee they’d get their second choice, Greinke (who agreed with Arizona to a reported six-year, $206 million deal late Friday night).
“It’s the cost of what we’re doing nowadays,” Dombrowski said of the record-setting deal. “We’re in a market with ownership that is willing to do it, that can do it, and we can do other things, too, while we’re at it.”
Price and McKinnis likewise were thrilled.
“We knew what we wanted, and we got it,” said McKinnis. “We got the team we wanted. We got the contract we wanted. It worked out great.”
Just one thing was left. Price, in Las Vegas at a charity golf tournament, had to come to Boston for the physical and news conference.
Werner dispatched his jet to Las Vegas to pick up Price on Thursday night, making the final arrangements through McKinnis.
“I spoke to Bo and said, ‘I’m going to handle some catering. What can I get David?’ David said, ‘I want two In-N-Out cheeseburgers with onions, fries, and a chocolate milkshake,’ ” Werner recalled.
“It cost me a lot of money to find somebody in Las Vegas to go to an In-N-Out and pick up two cheeseburgers. But I figured we’ve spent more than $200 million, what’s another $100 on a couple of cheeseburgers?”