SAN DIEGO — On Thursday, the Red Sox featured pitcher David Price in a tweet intended to promote ticket packages for the 2020 season. The choice seemed an odd one given the team spent the just-concluded Winter Meetings actively seeking a trade partner for the lefthander.
There’s little secret about the Red Sox’ intention to trade one or more high-priced players to get under the $208 million luxury-tax threshold, while also addressing other roster needs. While the idea of dealing superstar Mookie Betts was on the table at the start of the week in San Diego, Sox officials expressed a belief that it seemed less likely by the time the members of the industry scattered Thursday following the Rule 5 draft.
A lot of that has to do with what appears to be growing confidence that a starting pitcher can be dealt. The Red Sox have suggested a willingness to listen to proposals involving virtually anyone on their roster save for Rafael Devers, but officials from other teams believe the focus is narrower.
A National League executive said that when his team brought up Nathan Eovaldi — owed three years and $51 million — as a trade candidate, the Sox showed little inclination to discuss the righthander. They wanted to keep discussing Price.
That’s not to say that Price will be dealt and that another pitcher won’t be. But a number of factors appear to have Price as the top candidate to go.
The Sox still view Chris Sale as an elite talent. His five-year, $145 million extension (which counts for $25.6 million against the luxury tax) is modest if he is healthy and can return to something approaching career norms.
The Sox have little eagerness to sell low on Eovaldi, who in the 2018 postseason displayed considerable upside, but whose 2019 season was derailed by injuries and an inability to replicate the phenomenal command he showed in late 2018. With a healthy, normal winter, the Sox hope for a significant bounce-back.
It’s worth noting that Price outperformed Eovaldi and Sale in 2019; he was 7-5 with a 4.28 ERA, and 10.7 strikeouts and 2.7 walks per nine innings. But Price averaged fewer than five innings per start, while dealing with elbow issues and a cyst in his wrist.
As he enters his age-34 season with more than 2,000 innings under his belt, Price’s knowledge of and feel for pitching is not in question. But his durability is, and his diminished velocity shrinks his margin for error.
He remains an asset, and could still slot comfortably into the middle of a rotation, including that of the Red Sox. But if he were a free agent, there’s no chance he’d get the three years and $96 million he still has left on the seven-year deal to which the Sox signed him after 2015.
Yet a team may be willing to offer half of that — maybe more in baseball’s surprisingly inflationary climate for starting pitching this winter. That valuation offers a foundation for conversations the Sox might have about potential salary relief they could get by dealing him.
It’s also worth noting that Price is within a year of having 10/5 rights — 10 years of big league service, and five with the same team — that would allow him to veto a trade. While there’s a chance his value could increase with a return to health in 2020, Price would be impossible to deal midseason if he gets injured, and if they don’t deal him this offseason, the Sox will lose the freedom to choose their deal.
Right now, the team holds the cards in a potential Price deal; the pitcher would have them after the 2020 season.
And so, the Sox are talking to teams about Price. All the same, they aren’t so motivated to deal the lefthander that they’ll compromise other parts of their talent base to do so.
There had been industry chatter that the Sox might seek to package Price with outfielder Andrew Benintendi, to achieve greater salary relief and garner a greater prospect return. Some forecasted a match with Cincinnati, Benintendi’s hometown and a team whose pitching coach, Derek Johnson, remains close to Price from their time together at Vanderbilt.
But a team official threw water on that idea, suggesting the Sox see Benintendi as the sort of contributor they need moving forward, particularly given the dwindling control over post-2020 free agents Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr.
Meanwhile, while the Sox and Padres exchanged ideas about swapping Price for change-of-scenery candidate Wil Myers, the Sox don’t see the outfielder/first baseman — who is owed $60 million over three years, and counts for $13.83 million in average annual value — as a desirable return coming off a .239/.321/.418 line in 2019.
The Sox seemingly would prefer younger, controllable talent around which to build, even if it means subsidizing Price’s contract.
It remains to be seen whether they’ll be able to get it, but by all indications, they are doing their best to figure out what they might get for the pitcher.
In the meantime, the Sox are moving forward, creating depth. The one-year, $3 million agreement with Jose Peraza gives the Sox a 25-year-old potential second baseman or utility option, who followed a solid 2018 season (.288/.326/.416, 14 homers, 23 steals) with a down 2019 (.239/.285/.346) that resulted in the Reds’ decision to nontender him.
But Peraza is a defensive upgrade over Michael Chavis, buys development time for Marco Hernandez and C.J. Chatham, and if he plays well, he would remain under team control via arbitration for up to two additional years.
Beyond what he does on the field, Peraza represents the Sox’ commitment to let their prospects develop toward the big leagues at their own pace, rather than having big league needs dictate that progression.
The Sox also reached agreement with lefthanded starter Martin Perez on a one-year, $6 million deal that includes a $6.25 million option or a $500,000 buyout. Perez went an unspectacular 10-7 with a 5.12 ERA for the Twins last year.
But he produced a 48.0 percent ground-ball rate that was 20th among qualifying starters, had some bad luck (Baseball Savant suggested that, based on the quality of contact against him, Perez had the biggest negative gap between his actual outcomes and the expected outcomes of any pitcher in the game), and essentially had a year much like Rick Porcello, albeit with more walks and fewer homers.
He gives the Sox a back-of-the-rotation starter for 2020 and perhaps 2021, providing time for prospects Bryan Mata, Tanner Houck, and Thad Ward to develop.
The Rule 5 selection of utility infielder Jonathan Arauz gives the Sox a player whose glove and contact skills could allow him to stick on the roster in 2020, while offering a longer-term upgrade as a utility option over Hernandez (who has an option left) and Tzu-Wei Lin (out of options).
None of these moves is particularly dazzling, but they do represent a depth-focused departure from what executives around the game saw as Boston’s stars-and-scrubs approach of recent years. Even so, they remain precursors to the bigger drama of this winter: Whom will the Sox trade, and what will they get back?
Might Price be moved as soon as next week, viewed by some as a realistic possibility based on the state of trade talks at the meetings?
This strange drama — built chiefly around subtraction rather than addition — awaits resolution.
In the meantime, Sox Pax are now on sale, even if there’s no longer any sign of Price in advertisements for them.
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.