ANAHEIM, Calif. — The greatest player the Rays ever got in trade, if you want to be technical about it, was probably Fred McGriff.
Acquired from the Braves for $20,000 prior to the 1997 expansion draft, the Tampa native played 3 ½ seasons for the Devil Rays (and returned for a brief encore) heading toward the end of a stellar 19-year career that would produce 493 homers (for the old stats folks), a 53.6 WAR (for the new stats folks) and a legitimate, though thus far unrewarded, case for the Hall of Fame.
A different, and more topical, question: Who played best for the Rays after being acquired in trade?
Based on the small sample size of how this season has gone, Austin Meadows might eventually be the answer. Willy Adames also could be in the conversation.
But for now the numbers, and the eyeballs, would say Ben Zobrist.
Picked up in July 2006 from the Astros — where he was a Double-A player without much prospect status — along with Mitch Talbot in the dumping of Aubrey Huff’s salary, Zobrist developed into a valuable, multi-talented All-Star and a model for the super utility-type player now essential to all rosters.
During nine seasons with the Rays, he finished in the top 18 of the AL MVP voting three times, made two All-Star teams and compiled a 36.0 WAR, per baseball-reference.com, that ranks second in franchise history to only Evan Longoria.
The top runnerup would be Scott Kazmir, acquired as a Double-A prospect from the Mets in July 2004 by original GM Chuck LaMar for the dynamic duo of Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunato.
Kazmir made two All-Star teams for the Rays, started their first World Series game, went 55-44, 3.92 over six seasons and compiled a 16.5 WAR.
Next might be the most interesting, and relevant, name of all — Chris Archer.
That’s because he could be the principal in two of the Rays most significant deals: One of the best performers for them after they got him, and the bait for what might be one of their richest returns.
Think about it.
In January 2011, the Rays traded Matt Garza, who had served them well after being acquired previously in another huge deal with Jason Bartlett for Delmon Young, to the Cubs with two bit parts for five players with a chance to be solid big-leaguers.
Shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, the most promising, never made it due to injuries and other issues. But Sam Fuld spawned a legend with his outfield hustle, and Robinson Chirinos (Astros) and Brandon Guyer (White Sox, Triple-A) are still playing.
Archer turned into a legit front-end starter, making two All-Star teams, with top-five rookie of the year and Cy Young finishes.
Okay, he wasn’t the ace or the among the game’s elite as he craved to be. He had a losing record, 54-68, over his six-plus seasons, with an okay ERA, 3.69. But the innings he worked, the strikeouts he racked up, the value he generated playing at a bargain rate on a team-friendly extension, the leadership and presence he provided, at least for a while, had immense benefit.
And then he really paid off for the Rays.
The deal that sent Archer to the Pirates last July may be their biggest heist ever, getting Meadows, Tyler Glasnow and promising pitching prospect Shane Baz.
Initial returns can be misleading. Injuries can be, as already seen with Glasnow, an issue. Development can stall. Bad habits may develop. Success can change people.
But, still, this deal could be the gift that keeps on giving. (Playoff share, if they make it, for Pirates GM Neal Huntington?)
Glasnow, 26, was off to a majors-best 6-1, 1.86 start this season after transitioning back to starting and blossoming in the Rays less-regimented environment last year before missing nearly four months with a forearm strain. But he avoided the Tommy John surgery that seemed inevitable, returned to the mound last Sunday with a fury, and made his second start back on Saturday.
Baz, 20, impressed at Class A with a high-octane arsenal, and is already making his way up on the top 100 prospect lists.
Which brings us to Meadows.
He is 24, playing regularly in the majors for the first time after a couple 2018 stints, and on Friday hit his 30th homer, and that despite missing three weeks with an earlier injury. The team-high 84 RBIs and .917 OPS he took into play Saturday were pretty good, too.
He’s already made the All-Star team, won a couple player of the week awards, earned the praise of teammates, coaches and staff for his humble manner. The Rays should be looking, if they’re not already, into signing him long-term.
“We knew we were getting a pretty talented young player,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I would imagine at this point, what he’s done, he’s probably exceeded some expectations. And we’re glad he’s ours.”
The list of players acquired in trade who made big contributions to the Rays is long, including some lower-profile or shorter-termers such as Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell, Dioner Navarro, Rafael Soriano and Dan Wheeler. Here are the top 10 acquisitions based on their WAR rating with the Rays, per baseball-reference.com:
1. Ben Zobrist 36.0
2. Scott Kazmir 16.5
3. Chris Archer 12.6
4. Jason Bartlett 10.4
5. Matt Joyce 9.8
6. Fred McGriff 9.6
7. Logan Forsythe 9.4
8. Matt Garza 8.5
9. Jake Odorizzi 8.2
10. Sean Rodriguez 7.7
Prospect Wander Franco was the top pick in last week’s Dominican winter league draft by Cibao and is expected to play part of the season there. Other Rays drafted included Cristopher Sanchez, Joel Peguero, Cristofer Ogando. … Fun debate: Who’s been the Rays’ most valuable in season acquisition, Nick Anderson or Travis d’Arnaud? … Playing the wild card game at Oakland wouldn’t seem to be a good thing as the Rays’ 32-60 record there is their worst of any current AL park, though they are 7-4 the last three years. … Cash on closer Emilio Pagan, who was sent to Triple-A to start the season: “Since he’s been back he’s made the decision not look like the smartest probably.’’ … Do the Rays sell out any of the six games on the final homestand, which features the Red Sox and Yankees? ... Lee, by the way, returned to the field this season in Korea, hitting .261 in 108 games. … Ex-Ray Randy Choate made the LOOGY (Left-handed One Out Guy) Hall of Fame Jayson Stark created for The Athletic in honor of their being phased out with the 2020 rule requiring relievers to face three batters or finish the inning. … A belated happy 60th birthday to longtime Rays coach, and former Expos infielder, Tom Foley.
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.