SAN DIEGO — A funny thing happened on the roster-building road to 2020.
The starting pitching market has escalated beyond all precedents and expectations. The offseason has produced a spending binge that has redefined the cost not just of top-tier but also mid-tier starters.
The Yankees’ staggering nine-year, $324 million commitment ($36 million AAV) to Gerrit Cole followed an already record-setting seven-year, $245 million deal ($35 million AAV, not accounting for deferrals) for Stephen Strasburg from the Nationals and the five-year, $118 million contract ($23.6 million AAV) the Phillies reached with Zack Wheeler.
“Certainly starting pitching — really high-quality, elite starting pitching — is very, very valuable,” said Red Sox general manager Brian O’Halloran. “It’s understandable that those players would get well-compensated.”
It’s a bit premature to say whether those megadeals represent an industrywide trend or a one-time bubble. Nonetheless, the enormous level of spending on starting pitching — and the fact that there were spurned suitors for Cole, Wheeler, and Strasburg ready to make nine-digit commitments (and in the case of Cole $300 million) — certainly could have ripple effects for the Red Sox.
The Sox are looking to clear roughly $20 million from their payroll to get under the $208 million luxury tax threshold. They would prefer to do so without trading Mookie Betts. While their obligations to starting pitchers seemed exorbitant — five years and $145 million for Chris Sale (albeit with a $25.6 million AAV based on deferrals), three years and $96 million for David Price, three years and $51 million for Nate Eovaldi — the removal of elite starters from the market, and the cost of those starters, could alter the calculus for other teams looking to acquire starting pitchers.
One major league source said that the Red Sox have been approached by multiple teams about acquiring Sale, and given the Cole deal, it’s not hard to imagine the Sox being able to move his entire salary. But given the positive reports about his health and the diminishing pool of available top starters, Sale now looks like one deal that the Sox may be happy to live with.
There has been speculation about whether a spurned Cole/Strasburg suitor might pivot to Price, though it remains fairly unlikely that a team would do so at full cost. A survey of several evaluators suggested that while Price’s ability to pitch even with diminishing stuff is not in doubt, health concerns would severely impact his market.
If Price were a free agent, two contractual reference points for him might be the one-year, $18 million deal that Cole Hamels signed with the Braves this winter and the three-year, $48 million contract ($16 million) that Rich Hill reached with the Dodgers after the 2016 season. That’s not enough to give the Sox the financial flexibility they’d need — particularly given that trading Price would create another rotation hole — but it could provide a starting point.
Is such a scenario likely? Not necessarily. An executive with a team that tried but failed to sign Cole said that the only Red Sox pitcher his team would want to acquire would be lefty Eduardo Rodriguez — a cost-controlled option for the next two seasons who finished sixth in Cy Young voting after a breakout 2019 campaign.
That said, one evaluator wondered whether the Red Sox might be willing to package Price (with the team perhaps picking up $20 million or $25 million of his remaining salary) and Betts to get massive salary relief and potentially significant prospect return.
Obviously, such a move — a bit analogous to the 2012 bailout by the Dodgers that resulted in Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Nick Punto going to Los Angeles — would leave the Red Sox with a massive roster-building challenge but far greater financial freedom with which to pursue it.
For now, it is more accurate to characterize the Red Sox’ trade discussions as exploratory rather than active. Multiple front office members expressed pessimism that the club would make any significant trades before leaving the Winter Meetings.
Nonetheless, the starting pitching market appears very much alive, in a way that may soon permit greater clarity to what the Red Sox will be able to do.