ST. PETERSBURG — When you have a centerfielder hitting .147, you obviously need to upgrade.
So the Rays acquired a centerfielder hitting .178.
Yeah, that’s the snarky version of the trade deadline in Tampa Bay. With the Yankees, Astros, Blue Jays and Mariners all hitting the gas this week in search of an American League pennant, the Rays are still driving with their turn signal on.
And you know what?
It feels like the right choice.
Sure, it’s hard to watch the Yankees acquire Frankie Montas, the Astros get Christian Vazquez and the Padres try to hoard every impact player in the National League while the Rays went for defensive wizard Jose Siri in centerfield and soon-to-be 35-year-old David Peralta in left.
But context matters, and here’s the unspoken reality:
The Rays are not going to catch the Yankees in the American League East.
Oh, it’s possible New York has an epic collapse and the Rays suddenly go on a winning streak, but the computer model at Baseball Prospectus puts the chances at about 0.4 percent.
So that means the Rays are essentially playing for a wild card over the final 57 games of the season. That’s undoubtedly important. And the Rays have struggled enough in the past month that making the postseason is no longer the slam dunk it once seemed to be.
But the Rays made the calculation that the hitters they have returning from the injured list later this month — Wander Franco, Manuel Margot and Harold Ramirez — are just as good or better than most of the bats-for-hire they could have acquired.
Now, obviously, Juan Soto would have been a dramatic upgrade. But even Soto would not tip the balance in the American League East this season, and so you would be acquiring him for a better wild-card seed and whatever production he would bring in October.
Again, that’s nothing to sneer at.
But the Padres gave up five prospects to acquire Soto, including three on Baseball America’s Top 100 list. And for a team that relies on a steady stream of prospects to keep the payroll manageable, that’s a price far too high for the Rays to pay.
Realistically, there was one player on the trading block who could have been a game-changer for the Rays this postseason. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras is not just a strong bat, he also plays a position that has been an offensive black hole for Tampa Bay in 2022.
Pick up Contreras, and the calculus changes for the Rays over the next three months. But that’s the problem. It would only be for three months, because Contreras is a free agent and he’s made it clear he plans on hitting the open market.
Still, the Rays were willing to deal prospects to get him. They just weren’t willing to deal Taj Bradley (Baseball America’s No. 16 prospect) or Curtis Mead (No. 26).
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The Rays went this route last summer. They were convinced they had a roster capable of reaching the World Series, so they traded heralded minor-league pitcher Joe Ryan to acquire Nelson Cruz for the middle of the lineup. Cruz, as it turns out, was a disappointment. And Ryan — who is 7-4 with a 3.78 ERA in Minnesota — is just the kind of starter the Rays could have used this summer.
That doesn’t mean you should never deal prospects. But the time has to be right, as well as the price.
Which brings us to another uncomfortable, and unspoken, reality:
The top wild-card team (the No. 4 seed) gets all three home games in the first round of the playoffs against the second wild-card team (the No. 5 seed). That’s clearly an incentive.
But, in this case, the final wild-card team (the No. 6 seed) might have an even more attractive route. The No. 6 seed goes on the road for three games against the weakest of the three division winners.
So picture this scenario: If the Rays are the No. 5 seed, they may have to play three games at Toronto or Seattle. If they’re the No. 6 seed, they’re likely to play three games at Minnesota.
Which would you prefer?
The point I’m trying to make is there was not tremendous incentive for the Rays to overspend on the trade market this week. Would it have been nice to get Contreras? Absolutely. Would it have been even better to get a quality starting pitcher or an established closer? Definitely.
But the sad truth is the Rays are playing with different economic realities than most teams. The Padres are drawing nearly 37,000 fans a night. The Rays are closer to 14,000. In terms of revenues, that’s likely a difference of $60-$70 million a year. And that’s the difference in a team that needs to hold on to its prospects and a team willing to go for broke the next three seasons.
So, could the Rays have done more this week? Of course they could.
But would it have been the prudent move? That’s a harder question.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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