ST. PETERSBURG — Trading Blake Snell to the Padres said a lot about the Rays.
In giving up a “meaningful piece” of their pitching staff, even general manager Erik Neander openly acknowledged Tuesday that they’re “not as good a team without him.”
The promise of the four-player return was the primary driver, but the financial impact of the pandemic — on top of their usual revenue challenges — was a factor, highlighting their continued need to balance finances and talent, as well as the present and the future.
The void leaves them in aggressive pursuit of another starter, via trade or free agency, and coupled with the departure of Charlie Morton, relying more on unproven pitchers, in “some sort of a transition year” with a staff that is typically a pillar of their success.
Fans and critics have wondered why they made the deal, and also some of their own players, leading team officials to explain their thought process and sell them on the promise of the players they got back.
What it does not mean, Neander insisted, is that they are giving up on defending their American League championship in 2021.
“By no means is that any sort of white flag on this season,” Neander said on a media Zoom call. “We have a lot of confidence in the group that we have here and we’ve got a lot of time left to continue to build this club out and to get this puzzle where we want it.”
Can they? Will they? Ultimately that will determine if the Rays were right in making the deal.
Would they have been better off keeping Snell, the 28-year-old lefty with a Cy Young award on the shelf, an arthroscopic elbow surgery in his medical file and three years and $39 million remaining on his contact?
Or adding four premium young players they believe can all have some impact, with the bonus of having the saved millions to invest on other players? (Starter Luis Patino, the centerpiece of the deal, and catcher Francisco Mejia in the near term, pitcher Cole Wilcox and catcher Blake Hunt in the future.)
The constant churn of trading veterans, especially ones who fans get attached to, is tough, even more so from a team that just reached the World Series. The gist of the complaints from fans about the deal hit hard on that angle, although with some acknowledgment that many of the Rays’ previous similar trades worked out well.
The Rays do it anyway, sticking to a disciplined approach of always looking ahead, to not be lured into an all-in approach for any one year (a philosophy principal owner Stuart Sternberg openly disdains anyway).
“Our goal is to win a World Series,” Neander said. “Want to make that that very, very clear. ... It’s our philosophy, it’s our belief that the best way for us to achieve that goal is to construct playoff-caliber teams year in, year out. For every team that we put out there to have a shot. To avoid the valleys. To not take any years off.”
The Rays made the playoffs four times in a six-season stretch from 2008-13. After four years and a change in management on the field and in the front office, they got close in 2018 and have reached the postseason the past two seasons.
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Neander is confident they can continue that run, acknowledging the individual talents they’ve lost but pointing to what they still have on the major-league level, plus what’s coming from the game’s top-rated farm system, which they continue to make robust, such as adding Wilcox and Hunt in the Snell deal.
In other words: the team is bigger than any one or two players. Consider that over 2019-20 regular season and postseason, they were 55-35 (.611) in games started by Snell and Morton, and 95-63 (.601) with others.
Among those who agree with Neander? Snell.
As disappointed, hurt and “just sad” as he was to leave the team and the friends he has, Snell expects the Rays to find a way to keep winning without him.
“They’ve got talented players over there that are driven and wired the right way, so I know they’ll be fine,” Snell said on a Padres media call. “And that coaching staff is excellent. I mean, they’re the best. …
“Without Charlie Morton and me, it’s going to be a lot tougher. And guys are going to have to grow up a lot quicker. But I wish nothing but the best for them.”
Agent Scott Boras, who represents Snell as well as Patino and Wilcox, is not as sure the Rays’ plan will work. As he does with other teams, he disputes their claims of financial peril.
“This really defines Tampa Bay among MLB fishermen — they are the catch-and-release organization,” Boras said. “To bring home the big fish, the big trophy, you’ve got to visit the playoffs usually a few times, and guys like Blake Snell help you do that.
“It’s disappointing to me that a very competent baseball group moves forward in a way that they only get one shot or so a decade, and they know if they don’t win it that decade then that’s it, then have to start all over. That’s unfortunate, knowing that the franchise is making money, lots of money. …
“What I don’t like to see is a fan base that has a ‘now’ team wake up the next day and say it is now a developmental team.”
One read on how the Rays’ 2021 plan will work could be who they add to replace Snell; they expect to have a payroll of about $60 million. Neander said one benefit to the deal with the Padres, besides the massive return, was having more time to make further moves.
With an extra outfielder on their roster — presuming they don’t also trade centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier to gain further financial flexibility — and dozens of prospects, they could trade for a starter of some repute. Or they could invest some of the $10.5 million Snell was to make this year and pursue a short-term deal for a mid-shelf free agent, such as a Masahiro Tanaka or a James Paxton, or they could even bring back ex-Ray Chris Archer.
Neander said plenty on Tuesday. Most telling? “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”