Price focused on Tigers, not contract

— -- LAKELAND, Fla. -- David Price is familiar with his contract. And he's familiar with how to flip months on a calendar. So, yeah, he has noticed that he's eight months away from free agency.

But if that's something that America's most inquisitive media minds feel we need to ask him about every 10 minutes, that's our issue, not his.

"Honestly, I haven't put a whole lot of thought to [free agency]," Price said this week, leaning comfortably on a picnic table outside the Tigers' clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium. "If it happens, I'm fine with it. But I don't put thought to it on a day-to-day basis. I don't think about it before I go to bed. I don't think about it when I wake up. I don't think about it when I'm driving to the field."

No, he thinks about it when there's someone with a camera or a microphone or a pen or a notebook around asking him about it, because worrying about impending free agency is what we do. It's not what he does.

Ask Price if he has heard the big news that there are a half-dozen other ace-type starters heading for free agency next fall, and he deadpans: "I know a couple of them, I guess."

Ask him if he was paying attention this winter to the odd free-agent journeys of his former teammates, Max Scherzer and James Shields, and it's clear he was -- but more because of his friendship with Shields in particular than out of a desire to do a scientific analysis of why it took these guys so long to find a team.

"I guess the guy I talked to the most throughout the process would have been James Shields," Price said. "And he said it was a very tough time for him. It wasn't everything that maybe it was hyped up to be. I'm sure some guys love the experience. But the experience is going to be different for each guy. I think it's something that you want to be able to enjoy. You want to have fun with it.

"But honestly," he said again, in case this wasn't already clear, "I haven't put a whole lot of thought to it."

And you know what? We should actually take him at his word on this, because in truth, Price has lived through two stretches during his baseball career that were much more uncomfortable than a free-agent walk year.

The first began nearly a decade ago, during his sophomore year at Vanderbilt. He'd already been projected as the first pick in the 2007 draft. So every team in North America was watching every pitch he threw during the next two seasons with the Commodores. And all Price did was set school strikeout records in back-to-back seasons; win the Golden Spikes, Dick Howser and college player-of-the-year awards; and get drafted No. 1, ahead of the likes of  Matt Wieters, Mike Moustakas and Madison Bumgarner.

Price's coping mechanism for all of that pressure was "to just completely immerse myself in my teammates," he said. "All I cared about was Vanderbilt winning. And that's really all I care about now. I want to win. I want our team to win. ... I want to be the best teammate I can be. If you can just control what you can control, I feel like good things will happen to you out there on that mound."

But even that experience at Vanderbilt was a Caribbean cruise compared to what Price dealt with in his final two seasons in Tampa Bay.

After the 2012 season, he walked out the clubhouse door thinking he'd get traded -- and was as surprised as anybody when he walked back in that same door the next spring. Then, after the 2013 season, he was "sure" he'd get dealt, he said. And when he wound up back in scenic Port Charlotte again last spring? "I really didn't expect to be there," he said.

But Price had spent his entire career as a Ray, so he knew the drill. Tampa Bay wasn't going to sign him. The Rays weren't going to extend him. They weren't going to keep him for the long haul. So for two years, he spent every waking second "just knowing at some point I was going to be gone," he said.

Except he didn't know where. And he didn't know when. And he had almost no control over any of it. 

In response to anyone who asks whether the weight of looming free agency is a burden, Price can just point to those two seasons, when he was trying to savor every minute he spent playing for a team he loved. And knowing that the plug could get pulled at any moment -- and thus turn his whole life and career upside-down.

"When you're in a place that you really want to be, that's tough, you know?" Price said. "Only being through one organization up to that point, and just growing up with that team, that staff, that fan base for seven years? Going through that last year was tough. That was very tough."

Last spring at this time, the Rays' camp was filled with amazingly upbeat, win-the-World-Series kind of talk. Next thing they all knew, they were 18 games under .500 in June, then almost saved the season by ripping off a 20-5 streak right before the trade deadline. But they still couldn't get themselves close enough to keep Price from getting shipped to Detroit minutes before the deadline on the last day of July.

The pain of what Price and his friends endured during the weeks before the deadline still haunts him.

"My teammates and I, we felt like with every loss, I was kind of slipping through their fingers, I guess," he said. "And that was something I didn't want to happen. I didn't want people worrying about my future out there on the field, or away from the field or in the clubhouse. I wanted everybody to be able to go out there with a free mind and play baseball. We didn't want to talk about it. But it was kind of just fighting the inevitable."

And then he was gone, just like that, airlifted into a whole new clubhouse in Detroit in the middle of a pennant race.

"It was very difficult," Price said. "I don't think it really set in until I was in the clubhouse in Detroit. I got traded on July 31. I got to Detroit on August 2. So it was weird, you know? It was just a weird feeling, to go into a new locker room, with guys that I had competed against for parts of six and seven seasons, with guys I pitched against three weeks before I was traded."

What he found, fortunately for him, was a team full of people who welcomed him, supported him and couldn't have been more ecstatic to have him aboard. But it was still a strange feeling, to go from one place where he was a veritable Face of the Franchise to another where he knew virtually nobody. So he found himself doing what he'd often told young players to do: "Just listen with your eyes."

Over the next couple of months, Price found his place. He found his way. And he pitched better than a lot of critics gave him credit for down the stretch. Subtract one insane inning of an Aug. 27 game against the Yankees -- when he gave up nine hits in a row -- and he'd have had a 2.67 ERA in his 11 starts as a Tiger. He'd also have averaged close to 7.2 innings per start.

But at least those 11 starts laid the groundwork for what has actually turned into one of Price's most serene springs in years -- because he finds himself playing for a team that is pretty much guaranteed to keep him around for a whole season. What a concept.

"It's been a couple years since I knew I was going to be somewhere for an entire season," he said. "And it feels good, just to be at peace with that and not have to think about that, and not get those questions, day in and day out, from the writers. I think that that helps. It just helps being comfortable, knowing you're going to be a part of something for the long run."

Wait. Did he just say "the long run?" Um, how long is that "long run," anyhow?

Well, there are no indications he is on the verge of signing a contract that would make this whole walk-year narrative moot. But he doesn't deny he's open to it.

"Absolutely," he said. "I don't think anything has been talked about yet, with my agent and our big brass upstairs. But we're welcome to it. If we can get something worked out, awesome. If not, then I'm six months away from free agency."

It's interesting to note that Price would hit free agency at 30, the same age as Scherzer was this past winter. And, as we know, the Tigers weren't able to keep him around.

It's also interesting to note that, by almost any measure, other than perhaps strikeout rate, Price has had a better career than Scherzer ( see chart, right).

But beyond the numbers, Price also looks like a guy who's likely to age better than Scherzer because he's grown so much less dependent on his fastball over the last few years.

"I feel like every year I've progressed toward being a better pitcher," Price said. "Not saying I was just a thrower before. But I definitely got it, I understood it when I was out there on the mound, what I needed to do with attacking different hitters and changing speeds and being able to do stuff that way. And trying to get that ground ball when I needed that ground ball. And just understanding different situations on the mound. I feel like I've taken big steps in all those categories."

So if all that's true, it's tough to see Price taking less than the seven years and $210 million Scherzer raked in this winter. And if that's the case, it's even tougher to see how he gets it from a Tigers team that is already locked in to hefty financial commitments to Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez and Ian Kinsler through at least 2017.

Which means that come November, we can ask David Price all the questions we want about free agency, and they'll all be relevant. But ask him now, and he still can't wrap his mind around it.

"It's intriguing and it's enticing, but I don't think about it," he said. "I can honestly sit here and say I don't think about what I'm going to be doing in six months, or who I'm going to be signed with, or any of that stuff. I want to be here. Right now, I want to live in the present."