By Marc Normandin
Finding elite pitching is difficult on the free agent market these days, but that's not the same thing as saying there isn't any pitching available during the offseason. When a team can't -- or won't -- come to terms with their high-quality arms on extensions, they offer up said arms to the trade market in order to restock the roster and minor-league system. We've seen the Athletics pull this trick a number of times, and the Rays pulled this off just last winter by sending James Shields to the Royals. At the onset of this offseason, it's looking like shoppers will get the chance to bid for another Rays' pitcher, David Price, as well as the Tigers' Max Scherzer.
How does one club choose between these two arms, a pair similar in a number of ways despite their opposite handedness? As with most things in baseball, it will come down to -- no pun intended -- the price, and getting some sense of the differences there is our goal today.
Let's start with what they've already accomplished. Scherzer is one year older than Price, but they've both been in the game for six years, and the Tigers' right-hander owns the lead in career major-league innings 1,019 to 973 -- throw postseason frames in the mix, and it's 1,074 to 1,006, with Scherzer still ahead. The difference is essentially that Scherzer spent a little more time in the majors in his initial campaign, but overall the two arms have roughly the same mileage on them, and this holds true even if you dive into their minor-league workload (179 for Scherzer, 151 for Price).
The difference would be lessened further if Price hadn't missed 44 games in 2013 with triceps soreness. He returned on July 2 and showed no signs of wear, as he recorded a 2.53 ERA over his final 18 starts and 131 innings. Between the two, that's the only significant injury, as Price's medical records are otherwise clean save a 2008 elbow strain in the minors, and Scherzer similarly has not dealt with anything since shoulder soreness bothered him in late 2008 and prior to the 2009 season. If there's any risk there -- say, an old injury cropping up once more -- it's at least comparable.
In short, there's no real advantage to be had for either pitcher if you focus on their previous workload and their medical history. Both Scherzer and Price have historically taken their turns in the rotation, have similar mileage on them, and neither features a history of abuse from their managers that should raise eyebrows, either.
So, who is the better pitcher? That's equally difficult to figure, at least in terms of finding a major difference between the two. For his career, Scherzer owns a 116 ERA+, and has thrived despite making his home in hitters' parks in Arizona and Detroit, averaging over six innings per start with a 3.70 ERA and 3.3 times as many strikeouts as walks over 165 turns. Price is the owner of a 3.20 ERA in his 147 career starts, but he's also had the benefit of pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field behind him in nearly half of those, where he's posted a 2.78 ERA overall. ERA+ puts Price at 122, better than Scherzer but not a commanding lead by any means. He's also struck out over three times as many batters as he's walked in his career, and led the American League in K/BB this past season thanks to just 1.3 walks per nine.
Price gets some extra credit for pitching in the more difficult division during his peak years, but Scherzer has delivered against almost every offensive juggernaut during his career as well. The lone exception is the Red Sox, against whom Scherzer owns a 7.02 career ERA in eight starts, thanks to allowing a line of .318/.377/.520. They were no such problem in 2013, however, in Scherzer's breakout year, as he limited them to four runs and a .586 OPS in two starts this year, with another four runs in two starts in the postseason. Sure, it's just four starts, but it's a good sign going forward for Scherzer given his more aggressive, plate-appearance-controlling approach of today.
Price has already won a Cy Young award, but he can only lord that over Scherzer for another week-plus, given Scherzer is the likely recipient of the 2013 award. That leads into the price in dollars for these two, as Price's 2012 Cy Young award is a large part of the reason he saw a bump in pay from $4.4 million to over $10 million for this past season in his second year of arbitration. Scherzer earned over $6.7 million before his likely Cy Young, and will assuredly see a similar bump that puts him well into eight figures for 2014: MLB Trade Rumors predicts Scherzer will make $13.6 million for his third year of arbitration, a sum likely similar to what Price will get in his own third.
The difference here is that Scherzer's third season of arb is his final one, whereas Price has a fourth arbitration year that will keep him from free agency until after 2015. This is where the real difference in acquisition cost will come from. Scherzer won't be cheap, not by any means, but the Tigers can only push for so much in return when their right-hander is down to one final season before free agency, when he's available to anyone with the money willing to give up a compensatory draft pick. Price, like James Shields before him, has the two years of team control, so a team in the right place can give up a truckload of prospects without worrying so much about whether they can also sign their newest ace long-term.
So, not only will the costs for this pair be different given the years left to both of them, but the kinds of teams shopping for them will also vary. The Dodgers know they can pay for Price now, and will have the money to attempt to pay for him later, and their roster is already built for the present -- acquiring Price would simply be another move in their plan of being as all-in as possible. A team like the Red Sox has the pieces to pry Price from the Rays, but given the two teams are in the same division, it's not going to happen -- while the Sox have not reported interest in Scherzer, they could, hypothetically, acquire him from the Tigers.
The Cardinals also have the prospects, but are more likely to continue to build from within: quick, name the last front-line starting pitcher St. Louis acquired in a trade. Don't worry, we'll wait. The Rangers have the prospects and the money to retain Price, and also the roster to make something of his presence even if they can't work out an extension before the two years are up. Plus, throw in that this is the Rays, who always manage to squeeze every last prospect out of a team that they can for any of their valued pieces, and you know the market is going to be limited and exclusive in any Price deal.
For Scherzer, with one year left, that might not be the case. He'll bring in a significant package of prospects, much more than Matt Garza or Jake Peavy managed mid-season this past summer given he's a superior pitcher, but the Tigers can't lean on that extra year of control as leverage like the Rays can. Despite how similar these two arms are, that year is going to make all the difference in a return. With that being said, though, the Tigers will have a much larger market to peruse, and should be able to get plenty for the right-hander if they decide to pull the trigger on a deal. If they aren't going to sign him to an extension, they almost have to move him, with the way the pitching market works in today's game.
Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.