The Case For Trading David Price to a Division Rival

If the Rays decide to sell their ace, instead of avoiding an inter-division trade, they should strive to trade him to a division rival.

Conventional wisdom tells us that it is foolish for teams to engage in interdivision trades, especially interdivision trades involving really good players.

Tampa Bay currently has a really good player and a true ace in left-hander David Price, who could be traded at this season’s July 31st non-waiver trade deadline. According to Rays’ beat writer Marc Topkin, if the Rays opted to trade Price within the division, “it would likely require an additional premium.”

The Rays would require a better package of players in return from a team like the Orioles, Yankees, or Blue Jays to cover for their trouble of having to watch Price help out a rival, a trouble which exists but pales in comparison to the underrated benefit of trading Price to a division foe.

The Anatomy of a Deal

In a trade deadline deal where a non-contender trades a good player with limited team control to a contender for young players with ample team control, both the seller and buyer make the trade in an attempt to improve their club during desired windows of contention. In short, the seller sacrifices present value to acquire future value, and the buyer sacrifices future value to acquire present value.

When tailored to a specific deal for Price, the basics of a potential deal would be as follows. The Rays would lose roughly six wins between now and then end of next season, when Price is due to become a free agent. This clearly hurts their chances in 2015, but there are benefits to trading away their ace. First, the Rays would shed Price’s contract, which is the pro-rated portion of $14 million this season and is projected to reach roughly $20 million next year through arbitration. They would be able to reallocate those funds within player payroll by signing free agents or extending someone like Ben Zobrist, assuming he is not traded. Second, the Rays would acquire lots of good young players in return. While none will likely be as good as Price, any acceptable return for Price will increase the club’s chances in 2016 and beyond.

More importantly for the sake of this argument, a Price trade affects a buyer in the opposite way. A short-term benefit would certainly make any buyer a better club over the next season and a half, but consequences would be present. Any buyer will have to pay roughly $25 million for his services and surrender a very significant package of prospects to have the right to pay his bills.

The Benefit of Selling to a Rival

This common cost-benefit analysis of a traditional trade deadline deal is probably familiar to most readers, but the theory behind trading him to a division rival is not. To demonstrate this theory, consider a hypothetical trade between the Rays and Blue Jays, where the Blue Jays would acquire Price and the Rays would acquire a few of the Blue Jays top prospects.

The theory goes that trading Price to a division rival would make it significantly more difficult for the Rays to compete in 2015 as they will have to face Price multiple times, but this point is drastically overstated. Assuming division rivals face each other 19 times and that Price stays healthy, he would be expected to face his former club roughly four times. That is significant, but would it be substantially worse than facing a Blue Jays team that had allocated $20 million of their 2015 payroll elsewhere?

Price is great and his contract is below market value, but the difference between $20 million spent on his services and $20 million spent in the Free Agent market is not extremely large. The division rival gets a good value here and his is the drawback to trading within the division, but the drawback is a minor difference likely only to be present in a mere four of the 162 games next season.

Despite this slight drawback, the benefit to trading within the division is significant. Price will not get dealt without the Rays receiving an elite package of prospects in return, which will put a serious dent in the farm system of their trading partner. Supposing again that the Blue Jays are the trade partner and present the best offer, shouldn’t the Rays be excited about the possibility of taking Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris and Dalton Pompey away from a division rival? (The Cubs reportedly were interested in this package in return for Jeff Samardzija and it seems like an appropriate return for Price).

Sanchez, who retired all six hitters he faced in his MLB debut last night, has top of the rotation stuff amidst a shaky command profile. Norris is enjoying a breakout season at Double-A and also possesses very good stuff that he is finally learning to harness. Pompey went from missing preseason Blue Jays’ top 10 lists to becoming arguably their third-best prospect (behind Sanchez and Norris). And he's a traditional center fielder who is fast, plays good defense, and could hit at the top of the lineup. Taking these players from the Blue Jays could mean taking 40 percent of the rotation and the starting center fielder from the 2016 team, making them a much easier club to beat at that time.

This means that, from 2016 on, the Rays not only stand to gain from having players such as Sanchez, Norris and Pompey in their own organization, but they also gain from not having to compete against a Toronto club featuring those players. Weakening an opponent is a viable goal in any trade, and by trading Price to a division rival, the stronger Rays would face a weaker Blue Jays team in 2016 and beyond.

One objection that ought to be addressed is the ability of the Blue Jays (or any division foe that trades for Price) to extend him during the next year and a half. This is a legitimate concern, but if recent history is to be our guide, most players have not given teams a hometown discount even if they are extended well before hitting free agency. Assuming Price does not give the buyer a hometown discount, the net result is not one of loss, but rather one of mere happenstance. Since the funds used on extending Price would be used on player contracts anyway, it would be insignificant that the team signed Price and not a different expensive free agent to a market value contract. Additionally, since Price is too expensive for the Rays to extend or resign, there is no unexpected loss resulting from him being extended by a different team, even a division rival, as this would have happened following the 2015 season anyway.

Final Thoughts

To be clear, this benefit of trading within the division only applies in traditional buying and selling trades. The windows of contention must be different for each team for it to make sense for each team, which is the case in a potential inter-division Price trade. The Rays would erase all hope of contending this season and damage their hopes for next season, but by trading him at this upcoming trade deadline the Rays would stand to significantly increase their chances in 2016 and beyond while simultaneously weakening the chances of their trade partner.

In an ultra-competitive AL East where all five teams are often very close, trading Price to a division rival prior to the upcoming trade deadline is the best move that maximizes their opportunity to maintain a long-term contender on a low payroll.