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.