Due to the Rays solid (and cheap!) core and their widening window of opportunity, it seems that Tampa Bay is in on everybody. From short-term expensive free agents like Nelson Cruz, to big bats on the trade market like Edwin Encarnacion, to every arm that becomes available, the Rays have been to everybody’s car lot, kicking the tires.
Mostly this is because of two things we Rays fans aren’t used to having: money to spend, and prospects the team are willing to deal.
The “money to spend” has been covered in depth on this site. But how unusual is it for the Rays to fill holes on the big league roster by dealing touted prospects who have yet to break into the bigs? Turns out, it is pretty unusual.
Sure, Tampa Bay has dealt some young up-and-coming big leaguers before their prospect glow had a chance to wear off (Delmon Young, Wil Myers). But sending away the shiny new toys even before fans have a chance to play with them? Not really the Rays’ Way, at least historically. Not even when it could have made a huge difference. (Cliff Lee for Desmond Jennings! And who can forget: Jason Bay is a Ray!) But a few recent deals show that reluctance might be changing. Let’s take a look at some history.
1997 - Bobby Abreu to Philadelphia for Kevin Stocker
The first trade the (Devil) Rays ever made was about ten seconds into the expansion draft, when they traded the first overall pick (from Houston) Bobby Abreu to the Phillies for shortstop Kevin Stocker. Though technically not a rookie anymore (Abreu had barely exceeded the rookie limits during the 1997 season with the Astros), the former four-time Baseball America top 100 prospect went on to put 47.2 fWAR for Philadelphia between 1998 and 2006, and 59.6 fWAR over his 18-year not-quite Hall of Fame career.
As for Kevin Stocker—who should not be blamed for being Kevin Stocker instead of Bobby Abreu—he put up a mere 2.5 fWAR in two and half years with Tampa Bay before he was released just before Memorial Day in 2000. He finished the season with the Angels before calling it quits.
2004 – Chad Gaudin to Toronto for Kevin Cash
Again, Chad Gaudin actually exceeded his rookie limits before he was traded, but as we mentioned earlier the pickings are slim for this piece, so we’re including this one anyway.
A 34th round pick by the DRays in ‘01, Gaudin rose to be the #6 ranked prospect in the system by ‘04, mostly on the strength of a wicked slider. So it was somewhat of a surprise when the promising young arm was dealt for a backup catcher in December of ‘04. But then, that catcher still had some shine at the time, peaking as the Jays #3 prospect. Though he had yet to show it in the Show, there was some still some positive buzz around the young catcher.
Gaudin went on to to have a nice career for a late round draft choice. Kevin Cash went on to be Kevin Cash.
Terry Francona's awesome TROLL of Kevin Cash! pic.twitter.com/cZUpn0CExX— MLB Memes (@MLBMeme) May 15, 2017
2012 – Derek Dietrich to Miami for Yunel Escobar
Now we’re getting somewhere. This deal actually fits all the parameters, and it worked out for everybody. So it’s a trade unicorn.
Though not exactly heralded in the Rays’ system, Dietrich was a second round pick in 2010 and twice was ranked in top 25 of the Rays system by Baseball America. After the deal, he played parts of six seasons for the Marlins, filling in at several positions, sometimes as a starter. In 608 games (2132 PA), Dietrich accumulated a respectable 6.4 fWAR.
The mercurial Escobar, on the other hand, had a good 2013 with the Rays, playing a solid short and putting up 3.0 fWAR as he helped the Rays a Wild Card berth. But 2014 wasn’t as kind. His offense, and especially his defense, fell off a cliff on the road to a sad 0.4 fWAR in 137 games. He would later be included in the Ben Zobrist trade to Oakland that brought the Rays Daniel Robertson.
2014 – Trea Turner and Joe Ross to Washington for Steven Souza Jr.
Honestly, this one doesn’t count. I’m only including it so the “BUT WHAT ABOUT...” people don’t start screaming in the comments.
Once upon a time — in December of 2014 to be exact — Trea Turner and Joe Ross were Rays. It was probably less time than Mallex Smith was a Mariner the first time around, but still, it happened. They came from the Padres, along with Jake Bauers, Rene Rivera, and Burch Smith as part of the Wil Myers trade, with Myers, Geraldo Reyes, Jose Castillo, and Ryan Hanigan going to the Padres. But before the ink could dry, Turner and Ross were flipped to Washington for Souza and Travis Ott.
So yeah, this would have scored high on the list if it counted. But it doesn’t, so it didn’t.
2016 - German Marquez (and Jake McGee) to Colorado for Corey Dickerson (and Kevin Padlo)
This one also doesn’t “count” for our exercise, since Jake McGee was pretty clearly the main piece in the trade. But it’s still an interesting bit of data, as German Marquez was far from a throw in. Twice ranked a top-25 prospect in the Rays’ system and close to being big league ready, he was a key supplemental piece in bringing the coveted Big Swinger to the Trop.
The funny thing about this trade is that neither major league piece worked out very well for either team. Dickerson hit some moonshots and had an All-Star half-season in 2018, but overall it’s safe to say he underachieved on his way to 3.7 fWAR during his two years with the Rays. He was better than Jake McGee, however. The lefty flamethrower has only managed one positive fWAR season in three years with the Rockies, his strikeout rate has fallen off, and he’s put up a perfectly average 100 ERA+.
But those minor leaguers? Padlo has yet to put it all together, while Marquez has blossomed, landing on the Baseball American Top 100 list after 2016 and establishing himself as a mainstay in the Colorado rotation beginning in 2017.
So chalk this up as a cautionary tale in the “trade the prospects NOW” model: Sometimes prospects break your heart even after you trade them, for all the wrong reasons.
2017 – Casey Gillaspie to the Chicago White Sox for Dan Jennings
Right in the middle of a playoff push, the Rays made a classic (and un-Rays-y) trade-the-future-for-today move. It was also the last gasp of the Evan Longoria era Rays at making a playoff run, and it didn’t quite work out. In 29 games with the Rays, lefty specialist Dan Jennings was anything but special, posting a 3.44 ERA / 5.12 FIP as the club faded down the stretch.
On the “bright” side, Gillaspie hasn’t exactly lit it up in Chicago either. The former first-round pick (20th overall) and Baseball America Top 100 prospect hit just .220 in ‘18, and also saw his power numbers plummet while his strikeout percentage soared to over 30%.
But from a Rays perspective, this trade at least showed more willingness from the Neander/Bloom front office to pull the trigger on these kinds of deals.
2018 – Justin Williams, Genesis Cabrera and Roel Ramirez to St. Louis for Tommy Pham
Now we’re cooking with gas! This is the deal that shocked everybody, and was the clearest indication that the RFO was open to doing things differently. Justin Williams and Genesis Cabrera are both talented — if flawed — prospects. Tommy Pham is talented — though possibly disgruntled at the time — outfielder who could help the Rays both today AND in the future.
It’s certainly possible if the prospects sent to the Cardinals don’t pan out for them that this might be regarded as the best trade in Tampa Bay Rays history. And it’s also possible that, even if they do work out, this is still a great trade.
2019 - ??? and ??? to Arizona for Paul Goldschm —
Welcome to Arizona! The #Dbacks have acquired right-handed pitcher Luke Weaver, catcher Carson Kelly, infielder Andrew Young and a 2019 Competitive Balance Round B draft pick from the Cardinals in exchange for Paul Goldschmidt. pic.twitter.com/ylANMvt8kU— Arizona Diamondbacks (@Dbacks) December 5, 2018
Never mind, Erik, just sign Nelson Cruz.
Statistical and research credit to FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball America, and the Baseball Cube.