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Blake Snell had the best pitching season in Rays history in 2018, David Price the second best in 2012. They both won the AL Cy Young in those years.
Price was traded 624 days after winning the award, Snell 774 days. James Shields had the third best Rays pitching season (using Baseball Reference WAR) in 2011 and was dealt after the 2012 campaign. Scott Kazmir in 2007 had the fourth best and was traded during the 2009 campaign.
Chris Archer, Matt Garza, Jeremy Hellickson, Edwin Jackson, Matt Moore and Jake Odorizzi were all traded not particularly long after their best seasons with Tampa Bay, and Alex Cobb and Charlie Morton left via free agency.
The Rays enjoyed their first winning season ever in 2008 and within two months of losing the World Series began this trend by trading Jackson. Yet, since 2009 — despite removing those high-end arms — the Rays’ .534 winning percentage is fifth in the majors, behind the Dodgers (.574), Yankees (.574), Cardinals (.554) and Red Sox (.538). It is why Tampa Bay executives have been in such demand, especially by large-market teams like the Dodgers (Andrew Friedman), Red Sox (Chaim Bloom) and Astros (James Click).
Organizations are trying to learn the counterintuitive secret of divesting from quality starters, yet remaining a quality team. Many organizations fall in love with their pieces and fail to see the big picture, the full roster and what is good for the short and long term.
The Mets, for example, used their young starters to get to the 2015 World Series. But then refused to use the strength to diversify the roster and payroll while attacking weaknesses. Matt Harvey blew up, Zack Wheeler (who didn’t pitch in ‘15) left in free agency, Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard remain in diminished fashion as they enter their walk year in 2021. Jacob deGrom was signed long term and is arguably the ace of the whole sport. But think about what might have been built around him with greater boldness/vision when it came to being open about trading the most fragile entity in sports, especially because the Mets — with all the complaints about Wilpon budgets — could have been operating this way with a far larger payroll than Tampa Bay.
The Rays just won their second AL title ever in 2020 and already have divorced from two of their top three starters with Morton signing as a free agent with the Braves plus Tampa Bay agreeing to a deal that will ship Snell to San Diego for four prospects, notably starting pitcher Luis Patino.
For just about any other club this would be categorized as a rebuild. But Tampa Bay reconfigures for payroll reasons and to keep flush with young talent while never throwing away an attempt to win as much as possible. For example, they unloaded just about every meaningful player from an 80-win team after the 2017 season and were criticized for a soulless tank job, yet won 90 games in 2018 — and have had a better winning percentage in each of the two subsequent seasons.
This is the organization, after all, that traded Garza for an unproven Archer and Archer for an unproven Tyler Glasnow, the last of the Big Three Tampa starters. So, don’t bet against Patino becoming a dude as early as 2021, Cole Wilcox soon after and the Rays using perhaps the strongest farm system in the sport fronted by No. 1 overall prospect, shortstop Wander Franco, to regenerate quickly.
This has worked for the Rays — and the Indians too — in developing starters and trading them to manage payroll and restock the system.
Snell was owed three years at $39 million. So part of this was, of course, about lowering payroll in 2021. The Rays did not receive a penny in revenue sharing due to the pandemic with the expectation of receiving perhaps half the normal total in 2021 and 2022. Still, the Rays were in late with the Red Sox and Twins to retain Morton before he took a one-year, $15 million pact with the Braves. So they were willing to spend — albeit less than the $15 million the Rays paid Morton in 2020. And the Rays already have signed Michael Wacha (one year, $3 million) and will use some of the saved Morton/Snell dollars to further address the roster, namely pitching.
But mainly they traded Snell because this is their DNA. They put a high-return price on a starter and if that price is met they deal. They do not get emotionally attached or care about the criticism that this is bad for the game. They win and do not draw fans anyway, so it is easier for them — especially in a smaller media market — to sever ties with popular, successful players. They rely on a strong record in winning trades while improving the vitality of their farm system in recent years, finding inexpensive talents that they deploy to their best use and employing analytics better than most to enhance run prevention.
The line running through Tampa Bay contending on a shoestring payroll is a willingness to build up starting pitching, then trade it with the belief that a) the return is more valuable and b) more talented starters will be developed. View the ex-Rays and see under the surface of the success.
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