Why the Rays made the deal to get Hunter Renfroe, trade Tommy Pham

Trade with Padres also yields Rays touted prospect Xavier Edwards, costs them Jake Cronenworth.
San Diego Padres' Hunter Renfroe bats against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the third inning of a baseball game, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)
San Diego Padres' Hunter Renfroe bats against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the third inning of a baseball game, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso) [ RALPH FRESO | AP ]
Published Dec. 7, 2019|Updated Dec. 7, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Ultimately, the reason the Rays sent Tommy Pham to the Padres was about the numbers.

Sure, swapping his 21 homers for the 33 Hunter Renfroe hit at less than full strength last year, with the potential for more, was part of it. As was having Renfroe under control for four seasons versus the two until Pham hit free agency. And Renfroe, who turns 28 in January, being nearly four years younger.

Also, the prospect rankings. The Rays added another chip in acquiring another of the game’s top 100 in speedy switch-hitting middle infielder Xavier Edwards, who they see as a future impact player, potentially the bigger part of the return.

But what they got most of all out of this deal, besides the nearly 1 million views of the now viral video of starter Blake Snell’s frustrated reaction, was the financial flexibility of saving the projected $8.6 million Pham was due via arbitration. Or, more accurately, the $5 million or so more he’ll make than Renfroe.

In trying to improve their 96-win team without much if any increase from last year’s major-league low $62 million payroll, and with only four players making more than $5 million, the Rays had to be creative to try to do so.

So if they weren’t going to trade starter Charlie Morton ($15 million salary), centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier ($10 million) or Snell ($7 million), then they had to deal Pham.

Was this the best they could get for him, along with infield prospect Jake Cronenworth, whose big 2019 season at Triple-A and venture into two-way status as a reliever made him more than a spare part?

Maybe not. But it was the best they felt they could get now, and from a number of teams that were calling, which was important. The Rays can head to the winter meetings, and into the rest of the off-season, with the potential to be more creative as they try to add more offense and address what already was a deficit in right-handed hitting. Do they try to re-sign outfielder Avisail Garcia? Make a pitch for Yasiel Puig or DH Edwin Encarnacion? Take a flier on ex-mates Steven Souza Jr. or C.J. Cron?

“The timing is certainly a part of this,’’ GM Erik Neander said Friday night. “I don’t think this is a deal that is made in January. Hard enough to make it now. With as much off-season that there is that's left, the possibilities that are out there, we felt it as was worth taking the chance to move this forward.’’

Acquiring Pham, for three prospects at the 2018 trade deadline, was risky. So is trading him.

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He has the all-around ability to be an MVP candidate, and the drive to want to carry a team, even if that always on-intensity could be irritating at times to some, and his aggressive style led to some costly mistakes, especially on the bases.

“It’s safe to say his passion is unmatched by anyone we’ve come across,’’ Neander said, noting several times how difficult a decision it was to deal him.

And Pham, who had groused at times about the Rays’ lack of fan support, said Friday he was surprised and disappointed to be leaving.

“I’m a little sad to go,’’ Pham said via text. “I enjoyed my time as a Ray. My teammates helped me open up and have fun as a professional. I’m gonna miss going to battle with that group of guys. They are young and talented. … I thought I was gonna be a Ray in 2020. I thought I was going to help them win a World Series. Now it’s just gonna probably happen for me as a Padre. But I do envision the Rays getting there too!’’

Renfroe is an interesting alternative, a Mississippi man with raw power who’s a better defensive player than you’d think. But he doesn’t get on base enough, can’t run as much, isn’t the all-around player Pham is. Neander acknowledged that Pham has produced more than Renfroe has so far, that the Rays aren’t as good today as they were before the deal was struck late Thursday, that it could be viewed by some “as some sort of a step back.’’

But they felt Renfroe was “in the midst of a breakout” last season before being slowed by injuries in the second half, and are banking on continued improvement from the .216 average, 33 homers, 64 RBIs, .778 OPS he put up last year.

The difference is also getting Edwards, who has the chance to be somebody, a “potential long-term, building block, impact type piece,” Neander said.

Edwards is 20, and has had an impressive first two pro seasons at the low end of the minors, hitting .328. He’ll join the Rays honor roll of middle infield prospects that includes Wander Franco, Vidal Brujan, Lucius Fox, Taylor Walls, 2019 top pick Greg Jones, and said he was excited to do so, letting his play determine where he fits.

In essence, Neander said, they “traded off certainty for upside and potential.’’

And they freed up some hard to find dollars to try to help get there.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.