ST. PETERSBURG — Etiquette question: Is it considered poor manners to wave a white flag on 2021 even before hanging the 2020 pennant at Tropicana Field?
Because, at the rate they’re going, the Rays’ hold on the American League East title is slipping fast. It might have been painful to decline a contract option on Charlie Morton, but it’s downright torturous to follow that up by trading 2018 Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell to San Diego for a bushel of prospects.
Maybe the deal will eventually pay dividends. After all, the Rays have a pretty good track record of flipping starting pitchers for future stars. Chris Archer begat Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows. David Price begat Willy Adames and (eventually) Ryan Yarbrough and Mike Zunino. James Shields begat Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi. Matt Garza begat Archer and Robinson Chirinos.
And two of the pitchers they got from San Diego — Luis Patino and Cole Wilcox — have the kind of high-end stuff that could eventually play at the top of a rotation.
But here’s what the Rays didn’t get in the trade: an impact player for 2021.
Francisco Mejia may begin the season as part of a platoon with Zunino at catcher, but it’s hard to see significant roles for the other three in the coming months. Patino made his big-league debut for San Diego last season, but he’s 21 and has only thrown 25 innings above Class A. He may pitch in Tampa Bay in 2021, but he’s not going to give you 160 innings. Wilcox, who was drafted out of Georgia in June, hasn’t even pitched in a minor-league game yet, and catcher Blake Hunt is a couple of years away.
In other words, this deal may improve Tampa Bay’s bottom line in 2021 but it does not improve Tampa Bay’s immediate odds of winning. By eliminating Morton and Snell, ownership has trimmed $25.5 million from the projected payroll, and there is no evidence the Rays will be re-investing that savings.
Yes, I understand what they’re doing. The Rays have been able to hang with MLB’s big spenders in the AL East for more than a decade because they have stayed one step ahead by constantly re-inventing the roster and making the most of young, low-salaried players. It’s an unfortunate part of life for a low-revenue franchise, and Tampa Bay has done it better than anyone else during Stu Sternberg’s ownership.
But this deal feels different from some of the others in the recent past.
For one thing, the Rays were two victories from winning the World Series in October. You typically do not follow up that type of season by voluntarily cutting loose two of your top starting pitchers. Especially when the return haul does not include MLB-ready replacements.
While Tampa Bay, like every other club, was hurt financially by the pandemic, the Rays already were projected to have one of the lowest payrolls in baseball in 2021. If they deal centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, the payroll will drop to a 10-year low.
Tampa Bay eventually was going to trade Snell for financial reasons — even he acknowledged that — but with three years remaining on his contract, it wasn’t necessary to pull the trigger this offseason.
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Honestly, there’s only one way to justify this deal as the reigning American League champions:
And that’s if the Rays had lost faith in Snell and wanted to trade him before his value dropped further.
That’s not an outlandish thought. Snell’s 2018 season was among the best of any starting pitcher in the past 20 years, but he’s only occasionally lived up to that standard since then. Snell has gone 10-10 with a 3.96 ERA the past two years while averaging 4.2 innings per start.
You can blame manager Kevin Cash’s quick hook to some degree, but Snell has caused a lot of his own problems by throwing an MLB-high 4.27 pitches per plate appearance for 2019-20.
The reality is the Rays had a .559 winning percentage in games started by Snell the past two seasons — and a .622 winning percentage in games started by everyone else. That doesn’t mean Snell was completely at fault — either the offense or bullpen could have let him down — but it suggests the Rays might be confident of winning without him.
In the short term, that sounds like a risky bet.
Losing Snell and Morton in the same offseason — as well as surgeries that could wipe out most of 2021 for Yonny Chirinos, Jalen Beeks and Brendan McKay — is no way to begin their AL East title defense. Signing Michael Wacha helps, but it will not be enough unless the Rays have additional moves in mind.
This trade may eventually go down as another coup if either Patino or Wilcox live up to their potential, but right now it’s hard to see how it makes Tampa Bay a better team in 2021.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.