In the midst of an MLB offseason that’s at times felt like it’s been standing still, there is one exciting team apparently set to continue wheeling and dealing. The San Diego Padres have reportedly agreed to a deal to acquire 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for a package including several top prospects.
The team has also reportedly reached an agreement with Korean star infielder Ha-seong Kim and remains involved in the market for another starting pitcher. For now, though, let’s focus on the Snell trade and what it means for San Diego, Tampa Bay and baseball in general.
Snell, 28, will fill an immediate need atop San Diego’s rotation with Mike Clevinger sidelined for 2021 following Tommy John surgery. The left-hander, who bounced back from a rocky, injury-plagued 2019 season with a 3.24 ERA in 2020, joins breakout right-hander Dinelson Lamet as well as Zach Davies and Chris Paddack in what has the makings of one of the best rotations in the game.
Snell is under contract for a total of $39 million over the next three seasons, meaning the Padres’ rotation could feature him, Lamet and Clevinger as soon as the beginning of the 2022 campaign. Left-hander MacKenzie Gore, the top pitching prospect in baseball per MLB Pipeline, is also knocking on the door of the majors.
Heading to Tampa Bay in the deal are the Padres’ top two right-handed pitching prospects, Luis Patiño and Cole Wilcox, along with catchers Blake Hunt and Francisco Mejía, the latter of whom has spent parts of four seasons in the big leagues. It’s certainly a steep price to pay for San Diego, but one that undoubtedly boosts the team’s chances of contention for years to come — and the organization’s farm system remains strong despite the losses.
For the Padres, this trade makes all the sense in the world. They have a ton of talent, are ready to compete at a high level right now, and just made a move to significantly improve their roster for the short and (somewhat) long term.
Now let’s talk about the Rays’ side of things. First off, trading Snell, while certainly a big deal, was not a major surprise. It was reported roughly a month ago that Tampa Bay had informed teams they’d be open to dealing him. This is also what the Rays do. They’re one of the best organizations in baseball — if not the best — at developing pitchers, and often sign them to team-friendly extensions early in their careers before trading them for a big return prior to those pitchers reaching free agency.
The return the Rays received for Snell was certainly reasonable given the totality of his career performance and injury risk. Patiño has a fastball that tops out near 100 mph and is projected by many as a future No. 1 or No. 2 starter. Mejía gives Tampa Bay another option behind the plate and carries some upside. And Hunt and Wilcox, while a few years away from the majors, have the potential to be impact players.
It’s relatively easy to give the Rays front office the benefit of the doubt. The team is coming off winning an AL pennant, and since 2008, only four franchises have more victories than Tampa Bay despite its payroll being among the lowest in the sport year after year.
But that doesn’t mean the Rays organization, and more specifically this approach from a front office, should be immune from criticism. The small market Rays had an incredible 2020 season and were within two wins of their first ever World Series title. You’d think a team in that position should get some reinforcements in order to finish the job next year. When it comes to the Rays, at least, you’d be mistaken. Instead, the team declined a reasonable $15 million option on Charlie Morton (who signed with Atlanta) and have now dealt Snell, parting ways with two-thirds of a sensational starting trio that helped power their 2020 success.
Those prospects could turn out to be game-changers, and injuries could plague Snell, but there’s no denying that the Rays, less than three months after reaching the World Series, have now made themselves less likely to get there again largely in order to save money. As Baseball America’s Kyle Glaser pointed out, 25 of the 26 teams to win the World Series in the Wild Card era ranked in the top half of baseball in opening day payroll that year. It’s not just about developing stars or acquiring future stars. Winning a World Series costs money. If you aren’t willing to spend and trade away top players when they become even somewhat expensive, your chances of winning a title aren’t going to be anything other than remote.
To be clear, this is about so much more than just the Rays, a highly respectable organization. This is about a broken system in baseball in which really good teams are parting ways with really good players because they get too good. This is about the fact that we’ve gotten to the point where a team that came so close to a title would look at their low payroll commitments for 2021 and an affordable deal for their ace and decide it’s time to retool again — and that’s something that’s just accepted.
I don’t have any grand proposal to fix the problem. It’s not a simple situation. But it’s clear by their actions that many front offices across Major League Baseball don’t view winning the World Series as the end game, but rather as a nice perk so long as it fits with their plans to keep their payroll at a certain level. And that just can’t be good for the game.
Photo by Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons