ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays challenge you. No doubt about that. They challenge your loyalty and your sanity. Mostly, they challenge your critical thinking.
Because, it seems, they are always making trades that initially appear to make no sense. If you don’t believe me, just watch the viral video of Blake Snell grabbing his forehead and bemoaning another veteran’s departure.
In this case, it was Tommy Pham. Tampa Bay dealt Pham, and a solid prospect, to the Padres for Hunter Renfroe, and an elite prospect (plus another player to be named).
On the surface, this is not a good trade for 2020. Not for a team that is capable of contending.
Pham is a much more polished and consistent hitter than Renfroe. He gets on base a lot more, and strikes out a lot less. Renfroe’s lone offensive attribute, on the other hand, is his power.
In that sense, he looks a lot like Logan Morrison or C.J. Cron. The Rays acquired those sluggers in recent years, watched them hit 30 or more bombs with 140 strikeouts, and then cut them loose with virtually nothing in return.
So why would you trade one of your three best hitters for a guy like that?
Like always, the answer is complicated.
Part of it has to do with payroll. Pham was going to be one of Tampa Bay’s highest-paid players with a salary around $8.5 million. Renfroe will be closer to the $3.5 million range. That extra $5 million means the Rays can shop for an Avisail Garcia-level free agent (or maybe just Avisial Garcia) or take on extra salary in trade.
Another factor is the future. Because of their payroll constraints, the Rays are constantly on the lookout for more prospects. In this case, the Padres are sending 20-year-old infielder Xavier Edwards, who immediately becomes one of Tampa Bay’s top 5 or 6 prospects.
Finally, there is the 2020 equation.
Renfroe was a much better defensive outfielder than Pham in 2019, and that’s no small consolation for a team that relies on run prevention as much as the Rays. Still, that doesn’t seem to make up for the vast difference in Pham’s .369 on-base percentage and Renfroe’s .289.
The Rays already have a fair number of players who are contact challenged (we’re looking at you Mike Zunino, Willy Adames and Brandon Lowe) so it’s a little unnerving to trade someone with good plate discipline for another high-strikeout guy.
But if you watched the Rays play every day, you know a few things about Pham, too.
For instance, he was one of the worst baserunners in the game. That’s not subjective. He got thrown out on the bases — either on steal attempts, pickoffs or trying to advance on a hit — a total of 20 times. That was tied for the third-most in the majors. And for all that aggressiveness, he was only slightly above average when it came to taking the extra base.
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Then there was the matter of double-plays. Pham grounds into double-plays. A lot. He hit into 22 last year, which was fourth in the majors. And that’s no fluke. Over the past three seasons, he’s averaged 19 GIDP, which is fifth in the majors. Those are not theoretical or philosophical problems. Those are real, rally-killing outs.
So between double-plays and getting caught on the bases, Pham cost the Rays an additional 42 outs last year. Factor in those 42 outs, and subtract sacrifice flies from plate appearances, and Pham’s on-base percentage drops to a pedestrian .305. If you make the same calculation on Renfroe, his on-base percentage drops to .270.
Suddenly, the difference between them offensively isn’t so great.
And Renfroe still has the higher slugging percentage. And is the better fielder. And is a lot cheaper. And younger.
When you look at it from that standpoint, and then factor in the possibility of Edwards becoming a top infielder and Pham potentially slowing down at age 32, the trade does not look quite so head-scratching. Or, in Snell’s case, forehead-grabbing.
Of course, some of that supposition is based on Tampa Bay taking advantage of Pham’s salary savings.
If the Rays do not make subsequent moves to fortify their offense in the next two months, it would be difficult to defend this trade. And that’s taking into consideration Pham’s shortcomings and Edwards’ potential.
So stay tuned. My guess is the Rays are far from completing their roster tinkering this off-season.
Expect them to challenge your sensibilities again in the not-too-distant future.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.