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Why did Rays trade Emilio Pagan to the Padres for Manuel Margot? Well ...

It was a win-now move the team says, citing the impact Margot can have on the Rays’ defense, and that Pagan can be replaced.
In this August 2019 photo, the Padres' Manuel Margot (7) celebrates his homer against the Giants at Oracle Park in San Francisco, Calif. [CHRIS BROWN | CSM via ZUMA Wire]

ST. PETERSBURG — As usual, the Rays felt they had good reason for the latest somewhat surprising move, sending reliever Emilio Pagan to the Padres late Saturday for outfielder Manuel Margot and a minor-leaguer.

But this one wasn’t about the money, wasn’t about the prospect, wasn’t about setting up another deal (relax, Kevin Kiermaier fans), wasn’t about the big-picture future.

This one was about winning. More, and now.

“That’s the focus," general manager Erik Neander said. “That’s why we made the deal."

Related: Rays trade Pagan to Padres for Margot, prospect

Giving up Pagan, who, unexpectedly emerged as the leading man in the Rays’ closer derby last season, would seem to blur that a bit. And Neander acknowledged as much, saying they had been trying, repeatedly, to get Margot (MAHR-go) just for prospects.

Why?

As much as Rays officials talked about all the talent and versatility on their roster, and how it was just a matter of figuring out the fit, internally they felt there were some clear ways to be even better. And that Margot could be that piece.

His overall offensive numbers aren’t that great, though his right-handed bat is pretty good against lefties (.330, .886 OPS last year). But his speed is a weapon. And his defense can be impactful — run-saving and game-changing.

Roaming centerfield for the Padres, Margot ranked among the game’s best outfielders by a number of metrics — fielding percentage, outs above average, defensive runs saved, jumps.

MLB.com Statcast guru David Adler went as far Sunday to suggest the Rays could cover the entire outfield using Margot and Gold Glover Kiermaier in a two-man alignment. (What team would ever do that? That’d be as crazy as, um, having relievers start games or something.)

As much as the Rays have tried to improve their offense, they’ve always relied on run prevention as another way to do that. (Though playing Yandy Diaz at third regularly could be an exception.)

The Rays were so convinced Margot can help, they agreed to give up Pagan, whose 20-save breakthrough season proved him to be a good pitcher and a good man, intense, focused, standup, accountable.

Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Emilio Pagan (15) takes a moment on the mound just prior to pitching in the seventh inning against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the American League Division Series on Oct. 10 in Houston. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Is there some risk? Absolutely. But Pagan was no sure thing to repeat his success. While his strikeouts spiked with the Rays, and his walks and hits allowed dropped, the 12 homers he gave up made for a majors-relievers-most 25 over 2018-19.

Simply, the Rays felt it would be easier to replace Pagan than to find another piece like Margot.

The options they still have in the bullpen read impressively, starting with Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo and Colin Poche. Oliver Drake, Chaz Roe and Andrew Kittredge are useful. Though not all will work out, there’s potentially big upside if Jose Alvarado regains his dominating form and/or Peter Fairbanks shows he can harness his dynamic stuff.

Plus, there’s always another reliever out there somewhere to be brought in and made better by the Rays’ mysterious ways.

Adding Margot has some other ripple effects.

The pool of young core position players grows, as Margot, despite already playing three full seasons in the majors, is only 25, similar to Willy Adames, Brandon Lowe and Austin Meadows.

The payroll goes up as Margot, in his first of three years of arbitration eligibility makes $2.475 million, about $2 million more than Pagan.

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And the lineup, and 26-man roster configuration, becomes even more of a puzzle.

Kiermaier, Neander said, “obviously is going to be the guy” in center, at least on most days and ― fair to note — when healthy.

That leaves a lot of options to be sorted through, as the Rays find at-bats and outfield time in the best matchups for Meadows, Margot and other new acquisitions Hunter Renfroe (the only other righty hitter in the group) and Yoshi Tsutsugo, plus Lowe at times. Rookie Randy Arozarena, acquired previously from St. Louis, now seems headed to Triple-A for finishing school.

The bench or the bullpen could end up thinner, as the Rays may either have to carry only one backup middle infielder (Joey Wendle) or go with a 12-man pitching staff and one fewer reliever.

But they feel Margot is worth it. Maybe there is a complex outfield rotation that requires egos to be checked. Maybe Margot emerges as the main man in left, as similarly speedy and athletic Carl Crawford once did quite well for the Rays.

Waiting for Margot was taxing. Now the Rays can put him on stage.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays

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