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Thoughts After the Rays Trade Blake Snell

Baseball’s offseason had its first major moment late last night, when the defending American League Champion Rays shipped off their best pitcher to the National League:

This was unsurprising – it was rumored weeks ago – and it is such a Rays Move™ that it is almost a parody. Still, this move has huge implications for the Yankees. I have a few thoughts. Let’s get into them.

1. The Rays are a Disgrace: Hating on the Rays is something of a brand around here, but I want to be extremely clear: the Rays are a blight on the sport. This trade is just the latest example of their cynical front office philosophy – a philosophy that has spread to other front offices like a disease. In fact, it’s probably the most egregious move they’ve made in some time.

The Rays are coming off the most successful season in franchise history after losing the World Series in 6 games to Los Angeles. (Previously, in 2008, they lasted just 5 games in a defeat to Philadelphia.) There are legitimate reasons to doubt their sustainability, but Tampa was poised to make another title run. Instead, they shipped off a top-shelf starter for players who will (perhaps) help them tomorrow.

It is not a mystery why they did this. Remember when they signed Snell to a five-year, $50 million contract extension prior to the 2019 season? Look at how those salaries broke down:

  • 2019: $1 million
  • 2020: $7 million
  • 2021: $10.5 million
  • 2022: $12.5 million
  • 2023: $16 million (up to $18 million with incentives)

As blatant a cost-cutting move as you can imagine. And for a very good starter who will, at no point over the course of this deal, even earn the single-year value of the qualifying offer. Unconscionable. I’ve argued before that every single move the Rays make needs to be evaluated in the context of their cheap-ass front office strategy. Even the Snell extension deserves that treatment. In my view, that contract was crafted in such a way to boost Snell’s future trade value, not keep him in Tampa. By removing the financial uncertainty of arbitration, the Rays would have an easier time moving him before he got a real raise. That is exactly what happened.

To be fair, you could also argue that Snell was so disaffected by his usage in Game 6 of the World Series that he wanted out. I find this unconvincing and unpersuasive. It doesn’t even make the Rays look better, either. Snell’s World Series usage was quintessential Rays – a cut from a certain analytical cloth. It was a bad but unsurprising decision, given the way the Rays treat pitching. If they can’t get buy-in from the best players on the roster for that approach, that’s not a good look, either.

2. Enough with the Rays Magic: I am also extremely sick of everyone automatically giving the Rays the benefit of the doubt. They do not deserve it. The old Sam Miller adage, now six years old, still applies to the baseball media writ large, and it is infuriating. Since the Rays did it, it has to be Smart and Justified. Here is a perfect example of this mindset:

This reads like parody. It’s actually a pretty pernicious philosophy and justification of a cheap-ass framework, though. This attitude is actively corrosive to baseball. (There are others, too. I am not just picking on Matt. His tweet was just illustrative.)

It is true enough that the Rays have been very good for a while. They do have that many wins, and that’s great for them. It is also true that they operate within tighter financial restrictions than many other teams. This means they’ve had to be creative. We all know this. In other words, it is impressive that they’ve managed to be competitive – but we should not go too far in our effusive praise. (It’s also worth asking if their trade history on these sorts of moves is actually as good as people assume.)

Matt’s point above was intended to praise the Rays, but I actually think that it raises a separate, unintentional question: what if the Rays weren’t so cheap? By augmenting undervalued players with high-end talent – something the Dodgers have done and the Yankees try to do – they would have been even better. (Imagine if they signed DJ LeMahieu in 2019!) But they don’t even need to go that far. They could just keep the good players they already have. Blake Snell is a good pitcher. They’d be lucky to develop another pitcher as good as him in the next decade. If they kept him around, or others like him in year’s past, maybe they would have won a World Series over this stretch. Or, as a consolation prize, maybe they’d even have some fans.

Sure, in this scenario, maybe they wouldn’t scrape out 90 wins every year and lose to a better team in the playoffs. But marginal spending increases would have allowed them to become that better team, for once – and baseball would be more fun as a result. Instead, they just always get slightly cheaper and slightly worse. A decade plus of marginal success is not enough to make that a justifiable philosophy.

3. Impact on the Yankees: Anyway, strictly from a Yankee point of view, this is good news. A major division rival just intentionally made themselves significantly worse for the second consecutive year. Snell is a flame-throwing 28-year-old lefty with a 76 ERA- in 550+ career innings, all spent in the American League East. He limits walks, misses bats, and performs in big games.

The Yanks have hit Snell in the past – he has a 4.31 ERA in 18 games – but still. Getting him out of here is fine with me. I’m not sorry to see him leave the division. It also certainly makes the path to reclaiming the AL East title a lot less thorny for the Yankees. The Red Sox and Orioles are total non-factors. The Blue Jays are up-and-coming, and may be formidable, but I don’t think their roster is there yet. Tampa will still be a challenge, but again, they’re much worse now.

Even as it stands right now, without DJ LeMahieu and with substantial rotational holes, the Yankees have the most talent in the American League East. That may have been true even if Snell stayed put. Without him, though, the Yankees should feel even better about their chances to win the division in 2021. I’d say that’s good news.

4. Next Steps for the Yankees: The Yankees should not waste this opportunity. If other teams are going to get worse, pinch pennies, and actively sabotage themselves, the Yankees should seize the day. There is no doubt every team is hurting financially, but the Yankees can weather the storm. Trying to win is now the new market inefficiency. (Look at what San Diego is doing! It’s so unusual.) They need to take advantage and not look back.

There is a case to be made for complacency. The Rays self-sabotage makes it more likely the Yankees win the division no matter what they do, so why not save some pennies in the recession? On the other hand, I think the new situat makes it more important, not less, to be aggressive. Winning the World Series is hard and requires a bit of luck – so why not try to create some of your own?

The Yankees are lucky that their primary inter-divisional competition actively gets worse at every opportunity. They should not follow suit.

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9 Comments

  1. Troy

    I admire how well the Rays have competed despite their stadium and stadium deal. That said, they need to get out of there.

    Now, as for the Yanks, yes they should take this opportunity and go for it. They should anyway. But this gives them an added advantage. They are that much more likely to win the division or at least make the playoffs, regardless of who they add.

    So add. But do not add innings eaters or mediocre players. Spend big on players that can help you win in the post season. Bauer is easily the guy there. DJL also of course.

    But besides them? Rather than go with a guy who is likely to give you 30 so so starts, bring Paxton back and/or Kluber. Get players that might help you in October, not April.

  2. While I hate that owners are so frugal, and I dislike the Rays, I do have some questions. 1. Are you certain the Rays are a profitable team? Maybe they really can’t afford Snell – unlike the Yankees, who have a lot more income and can afford to splurge now and then. 2. Why do you say that the Rays “always get slightly cheaper and slightly worse” when they just had their most successful few seasons? 3. Why don’t you do the research and see how effective the Rays stinginess has been, rather than asking the question yourself? Add up the WAR and the salaries of the players they ditched and the players they signed, or something like that.

  3. MikeD

    Agree 100% with this, Bobby.

    The Rays don’t have fans, and that makes it easy to implement their philosophy. There’s no one to hold them accountable. There’s no loss of revenue from angry fans canceling tickets or not showing up because they never show up.

    I don’t want to hear that they have nice TV ratings. A good friend who moved to Tampa for work watches the Rays. He’s a Yankee fan, but the Rays are the only game in town, so he likes baseball, he watches the Rays, but he almost never goes to a game. He is the perfect Rays “fan”. Retirees and transplants watch their games. How do you build a fanbase with young kids, ones who will carry through and remain fans as they grow? The simple answer is the Rays don’t. They don’t care about cultivating fans. They care about having a $57M payroll and getting revenue sharing.

    Ever notice on sports boards that most of the people commenting on the Rays aren’t Rays fans? That’s because they don’t exist in large enough volumes. A few here and there. I’m not even sure if The Athletic ever replaced their Rays reporter. They had the Angels reporter writing articles as the Rays were going to the World Series. Why would they be in a rush? They know the clicks and views are low for the team. Those who love the Rays are people who love “process.” Baseball types who are fans of other teams, but not the Rays.

    The MLBPA should target MLB for allowing a team like the Rays to exist in that market. They’ve made little attempt to come to a solution for Tampa and Oakland. They weaken the entire league and hurt the sports marketing wise at a point when they’re losing young fans. Are the Rays doing anything expand the sport? Nope.

    • Dani

      Add the Pirates to that list. 4 winning seasons in the last 28 years and they rarely make moves to actually get better. Why does that team even exist?

  4. villapalomares

    Snell is a 1 to 2 win pitcher. Outside of his great 2018, he’s been a #3 starter. Let’s not go overboard in evaluating him.

    • Mungo

      I’ll defend the “honor” of Blake Snell here. 🙂

      Context is required. Jordan Montgomery is a 1-2 win pitcher. Maybe. Blake Snell is better, has elite stuff. A lefty starter with a 95 mph AAV fastball, second highest velocity of any lefty starter in the game. Wipe-out secondary pitches. He can shut down any lineup. He was elite in 2018. In 2019 he dealt with arm issues, and that is a concern that could pop back up, but he appears healthy. He was strong again in 2020. The Rays limited him to being a 5 inning pitcher and the vagaries of FIP heightened by a shortened season likely undervalued him, yet he was still on pace for a 3 win season over 162 games. He is set up well for a very strong 2021. He has shown on the high end he is a 7 win pitcher. So on the high end he’s 7 win, and low end at this point at least a 3 win. I’ll take the between on those for 2021, putting him in the 5 win category. Only another injury would restrict him to a 1-2 win starter or to the Jordan Montgomery pedestrian level. Not a knock on Montgomery. He’s likely fine as a back-end starter. Snell has front-end stuff and has shown it. That’s why it took the package it did to get him.

      The Padres are betting on health. They’re praying they didn’t just get another Mike Clevinger TJS!

  5. Jeff

    “A real man makes his own luck.”

    – Billy Zane, Titanic

  6. DanGer

    Curious if anyone’s looked at the financial benefit of actually winning a championship?
    Most owners seem to prefer staying *just* competitive enough to keep fans engaged. And you think it’s bad now, wait until they expand playoffs and 98% of the league “has a chance”. Yuck.

    • Mungo

      There have been studies. It’s fairly significant, but it’s heavily driven by fan attendance and increase in TV ratings and advertising revenue. Do any of these apply to the Rays?

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