With David Price, the Red Sox Are Playing a Different Game

The Boston Red Sox have built World Series winners through savvy player development and value signings. Now they're going to try to do it by spending big.

by Matthew Kory
Dec 2 2015, 5:43pm

Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If you were paying any attention at all, you were ready for this. In maybe the most easily foreseeable portion of the baseball offseason, seconds after David Price signed a seven-year, $217 million deal with the Boston Red Sox, the internet exploded with horrific "The Price Is Right" headlines. It was bad.

If the puns were predictable, however, Price going to the Red Sox was not. Just a year ago, the Sox had reportedly sworn off 30-year-old free agent pitchers and $100 million contracts like a born-again Christian swearing off booze. The Red Sox proved this by letting homegrown ace Jon Lester go twice, first by trading him in 2014, and then again after failing to bring him back to Boston as a free agent following the season. "Fail" isn't quite the right word, though—the Red Sox simply set their price and didn't budge. They could have signed Jon Lester; they sure had the money. They just didn't do it.

And yet today David Price and the richest free agent contract ever given to a pitcher are both the property of the Boston Red Sox. Someone just woke up with a splitting headache.

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The reason Boston didn't sign Lester was that they decided they didn't need him. He was going to be 31, anyway, and giving a big-money deal to a pitcher of that advanced age amounted to a macro-scale flushing of Franklins down a giant Porta-John. A smart team could win without taking that kind of risk, and the Red Sox believed themselves to be a smart team; they had studies that said so and everything. So Boston replaced Lester and fellow World Series hero John Lackey with four guys who, it turned out, delivered less WAR than Lester alone in 2015.

But I'm giving away the ending! Then the Red Sox went out and finished last for the second consecutive year, the end. That was the ending.

The Red Sox plan, a plan comprised of other smaller but no less intricate plans, all of them smart and subtle, had failed. As Mike Tyson says, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. The Red Sox took that punch and suddenly everything they believed evaporated.

And so the brain trust that had essentially run the team since 2002 and delivered three World Series winners—including one just two years ago—was unceremoniously dumped. Their ideas of how to beat the market, how to find good major leaguers, and what constitutes a smart risk? Also dumped. In their place came Dave Dombrowski, a gentle Midwesterner with an easy smile who approaches team-building the way Sherman approached Atlanta. The Dombrowski code goes like this: find what you want, find out what it costs, and pay it. Then have dinner. Preferably somewhere nice, maybe with infinite breadsticks.

If you're good enough at throwing a ball, you get all the money. Photo by Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The first hint came when Dombrowski traded four prospects, including two very highly rated ones, to the Padres for Craig Kimbrel, who is, it should be pointed out, a reliever. The internet gasped, and the broader baseball world lampooned the move, but Kimbrel is on the Red Sox now, and if numbers can be believed, he's quite good. The Price transaction was even less complicated. Dombrowski's negotiating strategy appears to be a smile and a "How much?" and finally, when the other team is done talking, "Alrighty then."

The days of the Red Sox trying to find market inefficiencies are over, in other words, and shitting on the concept of market inefficiency is the new market inefficiency. They're done trying to outsmart the market, at least when it comes to real top talent. They're trying to win, and there is no postseason share awarded for coming in first under the header "Dollars per WAR."

The key to this strategy, if we can generously call it that, is the assumption of risk. The risk that comes with handing out seven-year contracts worth over $200 million is large. If things go badly—say, if Price gets hurt—the Red Sox are going to pay a lot of money for very little in return. The team knows this, and evidently believes even that outcome better than death by paper cuts. Or, less metaphorically, it's better than giving Rick Porcello $100 million because he might be worth $140 million in a year or so, or better than paying Justin Masterson $10 million because he might turn out not to be a smoking husk of a pitcher. When you recognize talent, when real talent shows itself, you pay for it. That's the American way—or at least that's the Dombrowski way, and now it's the Red Sox way, too.

It's not subtle. It's not clever. It's not, strictly speaking, all that smart. Buying the best free agents for the most money isn't intellectually impressive. But it can be effective, especially when those free agents are very, very good. David Price, in case you were unable to guess from the contract he just received, is very, very good. As such, he is very likely to make the Red Sox markedly better next season and in the season after that. That he didn't cost the team their first-round pick, and that he came from and therefore is weakening division rival Toronto—those are just nice little lollipops the bank gives you after you take out a million-dollar loan.

There is little beauty in acquiring David Price. He's a fine pitcher and the owner of a cute dog, but he's a mercenary, a gilded blunt instrument. Now the Red Sox are better than they would have been had they not guaranteed him $217 million. Sometimes this stuff just isn't that complicated. You know, as long as you're willing to pay the, uh, cost

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