ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays pulled Blake Snell early again.
They made headlines during the World Series, taking him out with the lead in the sixth inning of a stellar performance in the sixth and decisive game.
Then late Sunday night they made a stunning deal in agreeing to send him to the Padres with three years left on his contract for a package of four players topped by promising pitching prospect Luis Patino and catcher Francisco Mejia, plus considerable payroll savings.
Snell confirmed the deal was in place late Sunday night, but told the Tampa Bay Times via text that he needed some time to compose his thoughts on the shocking news:
“It’s a lot, for sure. Tampa raised me, and you know how much I love this team and city.”
The deal is pending medical reviews and won’t be announced officially until those are completed.
Snell, 28, won the 2018 American League Cy Young Award with a dazzling 21-5 record and a league-leading 1.89 ERA, then went 6-8, 4.29 in an injury-interrupted 2019 season that included arthroscopic elbow surgery. He went 4-2, 3.24 last year during the abbreviated season, and 2-2, 3.03 in six postseason starts. In 21 starts since the July 2019 surgery, he has not completed six innings.
The Rays have been discussing trading Snell throughout the offseason as a way to create some financial flexibility with a payroll expected to be reduced to about $60 million following what the team said were significant financial losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Snell is due to make $10.5 million in 2021 as part of the three years and $39 million remaining on the five-year, $50 million deal he signed in spring 2019.
The Rays have now lost two of the top members of their 2020 rotation, declining a $15 million option on Charlie Morton, who signed with Atlanta for that same amount. Plus, three other starter candidates — Jalen Beeks, Yonny Chirinos and Brendan McKay — will miss at least some if not most of the 2021 season recovering from surgery.
The Rays did sign veteran right-hander Michael Wacha to a one-year deal. The former Cardinal and Met joins veteran returnees Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough in the rotation, but the Rays will be looking to inexperienced pitchers such as Josh Fleming, Brent Honeywell, Shane McClanahan and now Patino to work bulk innings and help fill it out.
The key to the deal is Patino, a 21-year-old considered one of the game’s top young pitchers, ranked the No. 10 overall prospect by fangraphs.com and No. 16 by Baseball America. He made his debut for the Padres during the 2020 season, going 1-0, 5.19 in 11 appearances — 10 in relief and a 1⅔ innings start. He averaged 97 mph with his fastball and also showed a nasty slider.
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The hard-throwing right-hander, signed in 2016 out of Colombia, made an impressive full-season debut as an 18-year-old in 2018 (6-3, 2.16 at Class A Fort Wayne), having added muscle to a thin frame and 10-12 mph to his velocity.
He made big strides in 2019 between Class A advanced Lake Elsinore and Double-A Amarillo, going 6-8, 2.57 in 20 games, striking out 123 and walking 38 in 94⅔ innings. He also was chosen to play in the 2019 All-Star Futures Game.
Mejia, 25, has played parts of four seasons in the majors with the Indians and Padres, hitting .225 with 12 homers, 33 RBIs and a .668 OPS in 128 games. He is a switch hitter who took over as the Padres starter in the second half of 2019, hitting .297 with eight homers, 19 RBIs and an .84 OPS in 60 games, but was limited by a thumb injury in 2020, hitting .077 in 17 games.
Also headed to the Rays, according to multiple reports, are two young prospects, right-hander Cole Wilcox and catcher Blake Hunt.
Wilcox, 21, was a third-round pick in the 2020 draft by the Padres out of the University of Georgia, where he was 6-2, 3.38 over two seasons and commanded a $3.3 million bonus, the most paid to a third-round pick.
Hunt, 22, was a 2017 competitive-balance round draft pick out of high school who played at the Class A level in 2019. In 175 games over parts of three pro seasons, he hit .258 with 10 homers, 83 RBIs and a .725 OPS.
The three prospects are ranked among the Padres top 10 in Baseball America’s soon-to-be-published 2021 Prospect Handbook, with Patino third, Wilcox ninth and Hunt 10th.
Snell was drafted and developed by the Rays, and he became one of their top pitchers and more popular players, especially on social media and his Twitch video gaming channel.
After it was reported in mid-November that the Rays would consider trading him, Snell said he began to consider the possibility, and said earlier this month that it would “suck” if he got dealt, especially only two years into his contract.
“I don’t want to go anywhere,” he told the Times then. “All I’m thinking about is I hope I stay here, I want to stay here and I want to be a Ray for the remainder of my contract. That’s really what matters to me.
“Will I? Probably not. But I really hope so. I love it here. There’s no place better than Tampa, in my mind.”
The lasting image of Snell in a Rays uniform will be him walking off the mound in frustration after manager Kevin Cash pulled him during the sixth inning of the World Series Game 6 after he allowed just his second hit and was holding a 1-0 lead against the Dodgers. Nick Anderson relieved and allowed two runs in, and the Dodgers went on to win 3-1 and capture the championship.