Rays refuse to rush development of talented southpaw David Price
Price entered 2009 with plenty of hype after bursting onto the scene last October
This year he is 7-7 with a 4.65 ERA, but he's learning how to succeed in the bigs
Price continues to develop a changeup, which could become a major weapon soon
The David Price who took the mound at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night looked very much like the one who made his major league debut almost a year ago to the day in the ballpark across the street. He still has his lanky 6-foot-6 frame, still possesses a power fastball and an aggressive delivery, and, most notably, still has the label of "Baseball's Next Great Pitcher" attached to him almost as permanently as the name stitched across the back of his jersey.
But there is something different about Price this September, and it's not just the new pitch he taught himself over the winter. Suddenly the buzz has died down. The shine has diminished, however slightly. The David Price who debuted in the old Yankee Stadium was more a curiosity than a known commodity. This year the answers about what kind of pitcher Price is and more importantly, what kind of pitcher he will be, have started to emerge. And although they still suggest he will one day -- perhaps one day very soon -- be among the best pitchers in the game, it is clear that his transformation to superstar that so many expected this season will have to wait until next year, at the earliest. "Where he is now compared to where he was a year ago is exactly where you would expect a first-year player to be," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "If you take away the hype."
With Price, that has always been impossible. Hype has followed him since the Rays made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft (and even before then, for those who followed him during his days as Vanderbilt's ace). It bubbled to the surface as he blazed through four levels of professional ball in his first season last year, and seemed to explode into a dazzling affirmation of his skill when he closed out the 2007 American League Championship Series by staring down the Red Sox in Game 7. His combined numbers last season on all levels -- 14-1 with a 2.31 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning -- suggested that he was not so much a star of the future as a star of the moment.
But Price didn't make the big club out of spring training -- "We just didn't think he was ready, in spite of what everybody had seen," said Rays manager Joe Maddon -- and didn't reach the majors until late May. In 19 starts for Tampa Bay, he is 7-7 with a 4.65 ERA and his K/BB rate is less than 2/1. For any other pitcher only two weeks past his 24th birthday, those numbers would be considered fairly impressive. For Price, they are cause for questions. Isn't this the David Price of whom a Rays scout once wrote three years ago, "He could be the face of our organization?"
"He's two different animals [from a year ago to now]," Maddon said. "The main difference is that he has adjusted to becoming a major league starter. He also has much better command of his fastball, and the ability to throw it for strikes. That may not sound like much to a lot of people, but that's huge."
Such subtle development may be pleasing to the Rays, but it's fair to say that Price's considerable skill, and his equally considerable impact on their playoff run last year, had many expecting a more obvious progression. The Rays have professed patience with Price, and with good reason. At 24 and still with several years to go before he reaches arbitration, much less free agency, he will remain a cost-effective yet highly skilled player on a team that needs a lot of both to compete in the daunting and pricey AL East. He is a serious investment, and they have gone to great lengths (non-Joba Rules division) to ensure that they get a serious return on that investment. They didn't call him up until mid-September last year, even as they fought to hold off the Red Sox in the AL East. They used him almost exclusively out of the bullpen after his arrival, and when he was deemed unready for the majors this spring, they didn't hesitate to ship him back to the minors and keep him on a strict 90-pitch limit.
The restraint was admirable. Maddon still laments his team's poor April -- they went 9-14 and were stranded 5 1/2 games out of first -- and cites it as a large part of the reason why the defending AL champions are on the verge of playoff elimination. "We never got hot enough to put April in our rearview mirror," he said Tuesday. Indeed, the Rays have never been closer than four games behind since. Could Price have helped keep the Rays in striking distance in a division where a deficit of only a few games can take months to overcome? Perhaps, but the very fact that they elected not to rush him even as their season collapsed suggests that it is the future that they are more concerned with than the present.
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