Feature photo courtesy of Keith Allison.
There was no shortage of big names shipped off at this year’s trade deadline. Johnny Cueto, Troy Tulowitzki, Cole Hamels, Yoenis Cespedes, Carlos Gomez, Scott Kazmir and many others, the list goes on. These trades were all impressive, as each one was a smart move by the general managers involved, and they happened because everyone knew what they were looking for. (Except for A.J. Preller of the Padres. What a horrible year).
With that said, what I’m about to declare is completely counterintuitive. The best move made at the deadline was the one that brought an impending free agent pitcher to a team with iffy World Series odds in exchange for three quality pitching prospects. That’s right, David Price to the Toronto Blue Jays wins the deadline.
I can’t get away with such a bold proclamation without some evidence.
The Blue Jays pitching staff, specifically the starting rotation, was not fit for winning big games. The staff wasn’t quite as terrible as everyone makes it out to be, but it was mediocre at best. Low strikeout numbers, high walk rates and poor park- and league-adjusted fielding independent pitching marks indicated Toronto was among the 10 worst staffs in the majors.
Because of the largely unconvincing American League playoff field, the Blue Jays still had a good shot at claiming a wild card spot before adding Price. Toronto had an incredible offense that added more pop with shortstop Tulowitzki. Were flawed teams in Texas, Baltimore, Minnesota or Tampa Bay really going to overthrow the Blue Jays?
Probably not, but adding Price gives Toronto more disaster insurance for the regular season. More importantly, he gives the Blue Jays a starter they can tab with confidence in the wild card play-in game.
Without Price, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons would have been left with Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey and Marco Estrada to choose from. None of the three have a FIP of less than 3.83 or a WHIP of less than 1.11, and none are striking out more than seven per nine innings. The trio has been decent, but none would be your first pick to start a do-or-die game against an ace. There’s too much potential for a meltdown.
Price, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of a pitcher you want starting that type of game. He’s won a Cy Young award. He’s a five-time All-Star. He led the league with 271 strikeouts and 248.1 innings pitched last year. This season, he’s 10-4 with a 2.45 earned run average and 149 strikeouts in 154 innings. He’s a premiere pitcher and a workhorse that can carry a team, as he demonstrated in his Toronto debut against the AL-best Royals:
When the playoff field is set, as long as nothing too crazy happens, it should be the Blue Jays versus either the Astros or Angels. Assume each team employs their aces. Houston would start Dallas Keuchel and Los Angeles would tab Garrett Richards. Toronto’s best offering prior to getting Price would have put them at an obvious disadvantage on the mound, but suddenly the Blue Jays in all likelihood have the edge. No one’s matching Toronto offensively, so to gain the pitching edge in a one-game series would make them the favorites to advance.
Getting to the ALDS is really all the Blue Jays can reasonably hope for, and their fans should be thrilled to make it that far. The team hasn’t been to the playoffs since 1993, the longest active drought in baseball. General manager Alex Anthopoulos made those headline-stealing trades to eliminate that streak. He did not go out of his way to achieve something more lofty, like winning the World Series. If that happens, it’s a bonus.
Therein lies the difference between the Price trade and all the others at the deadline. The Royals need to win the World Series for acquiring Cueto, an impending free agent, to pay off. The Astros have two years to make deep postseason pushes to validate the Gomez deal. Hamels needs to make the Rangers consistently good in each of the next four years, while fighting off aging and pitching in a less-than-favorable environment. The Mets need Cespedes to help them overtake a Nationals team that’s superior on paper.
The beauty of getting Price was that fans are going to be thrilled with just reaching the playoffs. The team wasn’t going to have any better postseason odds over the next few years, so pushing the chips to the center of the table with this team made the most sense.
Without Price, maybe the Jays miss the playoffs, and they’re no better in upcoming years, still missing out on October baseball. They’d be in purgatory, the worst place to be in sports. None of the top prospects from the draft and none of the playoff appearances. You’re just a perennial also-ran. (Kind of like Tulowitzki’s situation in Colorado).
On the other hand, say Toronto delights fans and makes the playoffs, but then Price leaves in free agency. The option exists to ship out valuable assets like Tulowitzki, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion for prospects and start over. A few bad years of rebuilding followed by the arrival of sustainable postseason contenders is better than an infinity of 82-80 finishes.
The option to go for it this year looks even better if the Blue Jays manage to win the pennant or even the World Series. Aside from pitching, one of Toronto’s biggest problems has been its uneven run distribution. In wins, they’re averaging a robust 7.27 runs per game. In losses, they wither to 3.12 on average. On the mound, they allow 3.09 runs per game in victories and 5.44 in defeat.
They win low-pressure blowouts but are having trouble finding enough offense to overcome their poor pitching in losses. That tendency is the reason why the Blue Jays should be a division-leading 65-43 according to Pythagorean W-L metrics, but are instead nine games worse at 56-52 (most teams differ by a win or two between Pythagorean and actual record). Price, at least every five days, changes everything and should find a way to steal some games Toronto has been losing by limiting the opponent’s’ runs.
In the postseason, it could be two, maybe even three games a series that Price wills the Blue Jays to victory. With their offense, which is best in the majors by a big margin, the Blue Jays could find a way to chase the pitchers they face in the playoffs and make a run.
It’s a long shot for the dark horse Blue Jays to win the World Series, but it’s now somewhat feasible, and regardless, they don’t need to. The fans in Canada are starving for a playoff appearance, no matter how long or short the duration, and Price is almost a sure thing in getting them there, with good odds of reaching the ALDS to boot.
So what if the future isn’t as bright? The Blue Jays are totally invested in the present, and as long as they give their low-expectation fans the gift of an October cameo, the Price trade is unbeatable.