ST. PETERSBURG — Even for the Rays, the Blake Snell deal was not normal.
When they traded Evan Longoria, they were coming off four consecutive losing seasons. When they traded James Shields, he had one guaranteed year on his contract. When they traded Chris Archer, they were 53-53 and about to miss the postseason for a fifth year in a row.
The Rays have always been bold when re-imagining their roster, but they’ve also been mindful of their chances to contend. They opted not to trade Carl Crawford in the winter of 2009 because they were still a playoff-caliber team, even if that meant he would walk out the door as a free agent in 2010. They got less for David Price in a trade in 2014 because they kept him until he was barely a year away from free agency.
Trading Snell now — when they’re coming off the American League pennant and he has three years remaining on a team-friendly contract — is an unusually aggressive case of salary dumping, even for a franchise that has an enviable history in that regard.
“You look back at some of the moves like this that we’ve made and, certainly on the pitching side, it’s been a while since one was made on the heels of a season anywhere near this successful,” general manager Erik Neander said. “That does make it different and it does make it more difficult and led to us having a really high bar to consider it, and a very specific type of return that we’d be willing to consider.”
It’s the timing of this deal that makes it trickier than most. Usually, a trade is either a “win now” or a “win later” proposition. In this case, the Rays must prevail on both ends.
1. By giving up a Cy Young Award winner for four prospects, the Rays basically are saying they will come out ahead in the future. That means either Luis Patino or Cole Wilcox needs to become a top-of-the-rotation pitcher to justify trading Snell.
2. The Rays insist they are not writing off the 2021 season. If that’s true, they must reinvest the money they just saved on Snell’s salary and get another starting pitcher. Otherwise, they would have voluntarily taken a step backward with a pennant seemingly in reach.
“This is about as tough a time to make a move like this as I think there is,” Neander said. “We were just in the World Series with a team that has a lot of talent and is on an upward trajectory. That makes a decision like this very challenging.”
In that sense, this trade is going to be graded on a near-daily basis for a very long time. No matter how much talent Patino has, it seems unlikely that he will step into the rotation in four months and assume Snell’s load.
Patino is 21 and has barely pitched above Class A. For comparison’s sake, Snell was 24 and had made a combined 40 starts in Double-A and Triple-A before he assumed a full-time spot in the rotation. Tyler Glasnow was 24 before he found a place in Tampa Bay’s rotation. So was Archer. Shane McClanahan is 23 and still hasn’t made a big-league start.
That’s why this deal is dependent on the Rays making another move before April. The rotation already took one hit when Charlie Morton walked out the door. Trading Snell leaves a second hole, and Michael Wacha’s recent history does not immediately suggest an upgrade.
McClanahan, Brent Honeywell, Joe Ryan and Josh Fleming may provide innings at the back end of the rotation, but the Rays still need a veteran capable of 150 innings to go along with Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough. Otherwise, every trip through the rotation will be another opportunity for fans to decide whether losing Snell just cost them another victory.
“We’ve got a pretty good group (of young pitchers) that’s coming here and excites us,” Neander said. “If we can bridge that a little bit, I think it’s fair to say that 2021 will be some sort of transition year for our staff.
“But yeah, we’re going to be out there looking to see if we can find someone who has a little more underneath them who can help us.”
Thankfully, there is recent precedent for this. The Rays gave up one of their best hitters last December when they decided not to go to arbitration with Tommy Pham and traded him to San Diego for Hunter Renfroe and a prospect. A couple of weeks later, they reallocated some of that salary savings by signing Yoshi Tsutsugo, then acquiring Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena from St. Louis.
So, yes, Rays fans have grudgingly grown accustomed to saying goodbye to local favorites for financial reasons. And they’ve grown used to paying short-term prices for long-term gains.
Bu never have they been asked to potentially take a step backward with a pennant seemingly in reach.
That’s why this trade needs to work today. And tomorrow, too.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
Rays’ revolving door
When it comes to moving salary, few teams can wheel and deal like the Rays. This is just a partial list of some of the trades the Rays have made in the past 15 years to reduce payroll. The savings have been rounded off and, in some cases, incorporate the cost of salaries acquired. Also, for the most part, the players listed are just the principals involved in the trade. (Date, player, team, return and savings)
Jan. 14, 2006: Danys Baez to the Dodgers for Edwin Jackson; saved $4 million
July 12, 2006: Aubrey Huff to the Astros for Ben Zobrist; saved $2.2 million
Aug. 28, 2009: Scott Kazmir to the Angels for Sean Rodriguez; saved $22.5 million
Jan. 8, 2011: Matt Garza to the Cubs for Chris Archer, Robinson Chirinos, Brandon Guyer, Sam Fuld; saved $6 million
Dec. 9, 2012: James Shields to the Royals for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi; saved $11.25 million
July 31, 2014: David Price to the Tigers for Drew Smyly, Willy Adames; saved $24 million
Nov. 14, 2014: Jeremy Hellickson to the Phillies for Andrew Velazquez; saved $4.275
Jan. 10, 2015: Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar to the A’s for John Jaso, Daniel Robertson; saved $20.5 million
Aug. 1, 2016: Matt Moore to the Giants for Matt Duffy; saved $5 million
Jan. 11, 2017: Drew Smyly to the Mariners for Ryan Yarbrough, Mallex Smith; saved $7 million
Jan. 23, 2017: Logan Forsyth to the Dodgers for Jose DeLeon; saved $6.75 million
Dec. 20, 2017: Evan Longoria to the Giants for Christian Arroyo, Denard Span; saved $60 million
Feb. 17, 2018: Jake Odorizzi to the Twins for Jermaine Palacios; saved $6 million
Feb. 22, 2018: Corey Dickerson to the Pirates for Tristan Gray; saved $6 million
July 31, 2018: Chris Archer to the Pirates for Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow; saved $11 million
Dec. 6, 2019: Tommy Pham to the Padres for Hunter Renfroe, Xavier Edwards; saved $4.5 million