It’s the $200 million question hanging on the lips of every long-time, newbie or recently returned (like yours truly) fan: will southpaw pitching ace David Price, a free agent after a stellar 2 and a half months with the Toronto Blue Jays, re-sign with them for 2016 and possibly beyond? I don’t imagine there’s been this much attention paid to a baseball off-season north of the border since, well, ever. Hard to believe that we’re only a few weeks removed from this year’s World Series, and the last game we saw our 2015 boys in blue play against Kansas City in the ALCS. Naturally everyone and his brother, sister and second cousin once removed has weighed in with opinions far and wide: Price is definitely going to the Cubs to play for his former manager. He’s definitely going to the Dodgers because they can afford to out-bid everyone. He’s definitely going to the Red Sox to play for his former GM. He’s definitely going to the Yankees because, well, doesn’t everyone want to play for the Yankees? And the prevailing opinion amongst the collected experts, insiders and seasoned gossip-mongers is that there is no way, no how, no possibility in the world that Price is coming back to Toronto.
Not that there haven’t been rumors leaning that way as well. As the off-season wheeling and dealing got going, the first Price rumor to circulate was based on that connection he had with Cubs manager Joe Maddon, whom he played for during his stint with the Tampa Bay Rays, and an old, off-hand comment that Price had made back in 2014 where he speculated that it would be great to play for a team like the Cubs and help them to a World Series at long last. (Interestingly enough, were Price to don a Cubs uniform he’d have to forgo his jersey number, as Chicago retired “14” several years ago to honor legendary “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks.) No one confirmed this speculation of course, but that was the leading narrative on Price for a couple of weeks. And then a few days ago, a Chicago sportswriter got Toronto’s hopes up by telling Sportsnet’s Tim and Sid show that the Cubs were actually exploring other options for their pitching and weren’t likely to pursue Price. Reports started flying that Price loved Toronto, was touched by how warmly he was embraced by its fans during his brief tenure, and considered the Blue Jays his first choice for a long-term deal. But yesterday, Fox Sports’ bow-tied Ken Rosenthal promptly pissed all over Toronto’s renewed excitement by trying to slam that door again on their collective fingers, saying the Jays weren’t “a major factor” in Price’s off-season prospects, and fanning the Red Sox flames instead (despite the fact that Price and Red Sox star David “Big Papi” Ortiz don’t particularly like each other and based on their public statements to that effect would not be thrilled to play on the same team). The subject of all this discussion, clearly watching it with a degree of bemusement, tweeted cheekily the other day that thanks for the attention, but he was going to go play in Japan.
Trying to look at this from a somewhat objective point of view, I think it’s not so much David Price himself that Toronto wants to hang onto, but rather the spirit of the entire 2015 team. Even long-time sports cynics have noted how cohesive that gang was, how they meshed and worked together and supported one another in a way that few Toronto squads (and few MLB teams, if we’re being honest) have. There was a magic there that the starved baseball lovers of Toronto and Canada don’t want to lose, and even as the Jays were mounting their comeback triumph over the Rangers and struggling to hold their own against the Royals, the spectre of all those pending free agents was gnawing away at the backs of our minds, leading us to wonder if money and circumstance would snatch this unexpected source of joy from us just as we were learning to love it all over again. Truly, we only had half a year with these guys. We wanted to see what they could do with a full season. Then Alex Anthopoulos, the architect of the 2015 Blue Jays, departed unexpectedly, and chills shot through a million spines trying to speculate at what newly appointed team president Mark Shapiro had planned – helped not by a story that team owners Rogers had ordered Shapiro to slash the payroll for next year. Maybe we were headed back to years of mediocrity in the name of the corporate bottom line.
But there were a handful of green shoots to be found. The Jays worked quickly to lock in Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and R.A. Dickey for another season. A huge sigh of relief came when red-hot starter and playoff-saver Marco Estrada inked a two-year deal and said that he hadn’t really been interested in playing anywhere else. We have seen a few guys around the edges go: LaTroy Hawkins hung up his cleats and retired; Cliff Pennington, utility outfielder (and pinch playoff relief pitcher) signed a two-year deal with the Angels; relief pitcher Liam Hendriks, the sole bright spot in the Jays 14-2 drubbing by the Royals in ALCS Game 4 with his four innings of scoreless relief work, was traded to the Oakland A’s for starter Jesse Chavez; and late-season infielder callup Matt Hague (unlike Price) is actually headed for Japan. Still to be decided: veteran starter Mark Buehrle, who struggled with injuries as the season drew to a close, will likely retire or sign a one-year deal somewhere closer to his home; while Ben Revere is a possible trade chip owing to his higher salary and a depth of cheaper options (including Dalton Pompey and the injured Michael Saunders) in left field; and free agent Dioner Navarro would prefer to play somewhere he can be the starting catcher instead of Russell Martin’s backup. But that’s it. Everyone else is staying put, and Jays executives have said that while they have had interest from other teams in some of their key guys, they’re certainly not interested in creating a weakness in one area to try and shore up another. (Suggestions/hopes that Troy Tulowitzki and his expensive contract might get fobbed off on another team are likely bogus.) What’s needed still is additional bullpen strength, including a hard-throwing left handed reliever to provide another option for Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup, and of course, the biggest question mark of all, that empty space on the starting rotation.
Some enterprising Blue Jays fans started a website, www.anypricefordavid.com, where you can enter your pledge of a charitable act you will undertake if Price signs and returns to with Toronto. Yesterday, Price weighed in with his opinion on it, and for whatever it’s worth, this clearly isn’t something that a guy does if he doesn’t think coming back is a strong possibility:
Obviously, the advantages to ponying up the cash to secure David Price are enormous. A starting rotation consisting of Price, Estrada, Dickey, ace-in-the-making Marcus Stroman and Chavez and Drew Hutchison as possible fifth men/long relievers would be fairly fearsome for opposing batters. Price is a natural team leader and provides a unifying voice in the clubhouse. Yes, there is still the question of how he performs in the post-season, but, if he can help get you there consistently to have that discussion in the first place, isn’t that worth the cash investment alone? Eventually, he’ll get over his post-season jitters just as Randy Johnson did. Perhaps most important of all, his teammates love him, and he loves them. One moment that stands out for me is when Josh Donaldson hit his third walk-off home run of the year, and while he was being interviewed about it, Price stepped into his face and bellowed “M-V-P!!!” Again, not the act of a guy biding his time waiting to cash in on free agency.
Everyone on either side of this debate will agree that David Price has earned the opportunity to decide where he wants to spend the latter half of his career. What is interesting is how quickly the purveyors of sports op-eds have been to suggest that Price can’t wait to pack his bags and flee the dreaded Great White North for whomever ponies up the most cash. They can’t fathom that there might be something more in the equation for Price than just money. I can’t speak to that of course, nor can anyone except David Price himself. It’s quite possible too that Rogers will look at the books, weigh the prospect of added revenue from sold-out stands and post-season tickets/merchandise and decide to make the offer that Price’s agents will find the most palatable; or, they may put in only a half-hearted bid and try to make a play for one of the cheaper options out there, feeling that between Stroman, Estrada and Dickey the rotation is strong enough as is. But ultimately, I’m going to come down on the side that thinks David Price is going to remain a Blue Jay.
Wishful thinking, perhaps? Conventional wisdom says I’m wrong. Conventional wisdom also said Stephen Harper was a genius for calling a long election campaign on the back of sending every parent in Canada a cheque, that he’d be returned with a second majority, and “just not ready” was going to spell the death of the Liberal Party. I think David Price likes Toronto, I think he likes his Blue Jay teammates (he bought them all scooters, and jokes with them regularly still on social media), I think he likes the fans, and I think he feels there is some unfinished business there, i.e., a World Series ring. Like the fans I think he may wonder how the Blue Jays can do with a full season with their winning 2015 roster mostly intact. I think he wants to keep hold of that magic, like we all do. So we’ll wait and see, and either we’ll be vindicated and have a good laugh at the expense of Ken Rosenthal and his ilk, or we’ll shrug and say thanks for the taste of David Price’s services that we were lucky enough to enjoy for those amazing few months this past summer, and wish him well in his future endeavors (hopefully in the National League so we don’t have to try hitting against him).
Mostly though, I think he’s coming back because my wife says she thinks he will. And her judgment has always been enough for me to keep faith. So you heard it here first, folks.
Waiting with bated breath.
UPDATE Dec. 1st: Price has signed a 7-year, $217 million deal to pitch for the Red Sox. So you can disregard everything you just read. However, I still love and trust my wife.
So long #14, thanks for the memories.