David Price Trades Still Yielding Rewards for Detroit Tigers

Detroit and then-General Manager Dave Dombrowski acquired David Price at the trade deadline in 2014 and then sent him away almost exactly a calendar year later

“Today it’s great, it’s nice, it’s fine. I love to have David Price. If we win, then I’ll be very satisfied.” That was the quote given by GM Dave Dombrowski after he executed a 3-team trade which sent starter Drew Smyly, prospect Willy Adames, and center fielder Austin Jackson away in an all-out effort to win-now.

Unfortunately, Detroit would not win–getting knocked out by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2014 ALDS. As always, Dombrowski and Illitch would make additions in 2015 in their relentless pursuit to win, but the results were underwhelming–playing to a 48-52 record leading them to the decision to ultimately sell.

The team’s results were little to do with Price, though. He would pitch to a 5.4 bWAR over his 32 starts while wearing a Tiger uniform and, beyond the stats, he brought a certain element of excitement every fifth day. His pitches were sharp; he almost never worked deep into counts–demanding batters either put the ball in play or strike out within three pitches.

His average start was almost exactly seven innings in 2015, speaking to his efficiency. Relentless strike throwing, a blistering pace, and a microscopic walk rate all made for some great entertainment for fans and was equally as fatiguing for opposing hitters.

Beyond the value he provided from his performance, he certainly provided value in marketing as well. Price was quirky in ways one might expect a baseball player to be. His obsession with Jordan shoes to his love for the popcorn in Toronto to his friendship with his since-passed French bulldog Astro were a few of the qualities that humanized Price and endeared him to the fan base.

This is what Detroit had for 364 days. But what did they give up? Drew Smyly was arguably the headliner of the trade. This was a 25 year-old starter who had made the transition from solid bullpen arm to a quality rotation piece. After a 2.6 bWAR season out of the bullpen in 2013, he had produced a 1.6 bWAR as a starter before the trade. He would go on to pitch seven games for Tampa and produce a sparkling 1.70 ERA before getting shut down with a shoulder injury.

Smyly would never be the same–he lasted until May of 2015 before missing the rest of the season with the same nagging shoulder injury. 2016 brought him a full season but barely pitched above replacement level and he would be traded in the off-season. He had Tommy John Surgery in 2017 and has bounced around the league since.

Willy Adames was also sent to Tampa in the deal. At the time, he was promising but incredibly green as a prospect–just 18 years old and in Low-A West Michigan. Tampa bet on both Adames and their player development staff to create value and both delivered. Adames would reach the big leagues as a 22 year-old and produce 1.4 bWAR over 85 games in 2018. Last season, he produced 4.2 bWAR as their every day short stop.

PORT CHARLOTTE, FL – FEBRUARY 26: Willy Adames #1 of the Tampa Bay Rays fields the ball during a Grapefruit League spring training game against the Minnesota Twins at Charlotte Sports Park on February 26, 2020 in Port Charlotte, Florida. The Twins defeated the Rays 10-8. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Seattle would essentially go MLB for MLB; trading Nick Franklin to Tampa and receiving Tigers’ center fielder Austin Jackson. Detroit was playing at the time of the trade, which resulted in Jackson getting pulled from the field mid-game amid screams from Dave Dombrowski and cheers from the home crowd. Jackson would play replacement-level for the Mariners the remainder of 2015 and would produce 1.5 bWAR before getting traded to the Cubs in 2016.

If we were to chop off the trade tree right here, this was a reasonable trade for all parties. Seattle did not get much but they also did not give up much. Meanwhile, Tampa received young talent even in spite of Smyly’s injuries. Detroit got a star pitcher in his prime who aligned with their timeline to win, although it did not take them over the top as Dombrowski would have hoped.

The tree did not stop there, though. The decision for the Tigers to sell at the 2015 deadline positioned David Price as a prime candidate to move again–and that he did. For a brief moment, many felt the Dodgers had the most momentum to land Price in a trade–that was until Toronto called and literally allowed Detroit to have the pick of the litter in their farm system.

CHICAGO – SEPTEMBER 28: Matthew Boyd #48 of the Detroit Tigers pitches against the Chicago White Sox during the first game of a double header on September 28, 2019 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

The prize was Daniel Norris; who was a top-15 prospect in all of baseball who had recently reached the big leagues. Also included were Matt Boyd, another lefty starter with excellent minor league numbers, and Jairo LaBourt, who was a little lower in the minors and was all but destined for the bullpen at the time of the trade.

LaBourt’s big league career would only last six innings, while Norris and Boyd have been different stories. Norris battled injuries and ended up becoming second in line in terms of success; but has still produced 5.4 bWAR in just over four seasons with the Tigers. Boyd, meanwhile, has produced 7.7 bWAR for Detroit and continues to refine his game and position himself as one of the better pitchers in the game.

Deals like the one between Detroit and Toronto are the reasons teams have devalued rental players so much and are much more prone to ‘prospect hug.’ Toronto was lucky to get 2.6 bWAR over 11 starts out of Price, but the team would lose in the playoffs and ultimately watch him sign with the Boston Red Sox during the off-season. Some may call current GM’s in the league risk-averse; to me, it is more about being self-aware with their own squad and not sacrificing the club’s future in exchange for an unlikely short-term goal.

Even if we compared the two trades without what we know now about each player–would one rather have an 18-year old Willy Adames and a young Drew Smyly (we’ll leave Seattle out of this example), or receive one of the best prospects in the game in Daniel Norris who is MLB-ready, another promising lefty starter in Matt Boyd that is MLB-ready, and a relief prospect? It can easily be argued that Dombrowski received more for two months of David Price than he gave up for a year of him; and that is not even considering the value that Price brought to the club the season he was with Detroit.

It is easy and convenient to paw at the window watching a young Willy Adames develop into an all-star shortstop for the Rays; but keep in mind both the value we received in exchange both in Price as well as Norris and Boyd. Additionally, recall that Tampa has one of the premier player development machines in the entire league. The idea that Detroit’s lagging system would have produced an equivalent to what Adames has become is a stretch.

This will go down as two of the better trades Dombrowski has ever executed. Strangely, the team could never put it all together and have since dismantled the team after Dombrowski’s departure shortly after the 2015 deadline. Juxtaposed against the old days of producing sneaky talent like Eugenio Suarez and Spencer Turnbull, Detroit will now rely on their blue chip prospects to pair with Boyd and Norris on their next contending club.

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