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DRB Debate: Are the Rays “sellers”?

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How do we define the term when it comes to how the Rays handle their business

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Minnesota Twins Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Here at DRB, we like to have a good, fun, Rays-centric debate. Often times, we like to share these debates, because we know our readers will have plenty of opinions of their own on the matter. The topic du jour: Are the Rays really “sellers”? Is that term still relevant?

It’s an interesting debate given that the league is just around the corner from the trade deadline, so the topic is on all our minds.

We gathered Ian Malinowski and Danny Russell to double up and bully the brave and heroic Jim Turvey, fighting all on his own (guess who is writing this intro…) on the topic of whether the Rays are “sellers,” and how we define that buzzword. Here you go:

Danny Russell: Kevin Cash uncharacteristically promised that the Rays were going to be “very active” at the trade deadline this year. That should come as no surprise, we’re just not used to the words being said out loud! But there’s a question as to what “very active” means — do the Rays fit into the buyers vs. sellers framework?

The Rays have plenty to sell: Expiring contracts like Nathan Eovaldi, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Wilson Ramos — all productive, major league regulars — are logical pieces to move. The Rays also have dudes reaching arbitration, though, that they likely don’t want to pay when the organization has the depth to cover those spots. Players like Matt Andriese and C.J. Cron come to mind. Finally the Rays also have some coveted arms as well, such as Chris Archer and Blake Snell, that may net some decent prospects if the right team gets involved. The Rays have to be listening to such offers in a rebuild.

Even if the Rays get back a long-term asset in the majors like Matt Duffy this year, is there any way to spin moving any of the players above as not selling?

Jim Turvey: I think there is. I’d like to push back against two specific words in that assertion: “sell” and “rebuild.” When I look at what the Rays have done over the past six months, I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of using those words. But when we really parse what the team is doing, are we so sure that those words accurately describe the team’s actions?

The “Big Bang” moment for considering the Rays to be sellers was, for many, the Evan Longoria trade. But look back just a few weeks earlier. The Rays made a pair of minor, but significant moves. First, they acquired Joey Wendle from the A’s for a PTBNL. A day later, they acquired Ryan Schimpf from the Padres for Short-A minor leaguer. Neither of these transactions were world-moving in the sense that the Longo move was, but they were both definite “buy” moves. Wendle has been up at the major league level all season, and if Schimpf was any good, that was the plan for him as well.

If we go through the litany of Rays moves since, I still have a hard time coming down hard in the “sell” category. For every Jake Odorizzi-for-a-Single-A-shortstop move, there is an acquisition of C.J. Cron for a PTBNL on the very same day. (The lone exception was the Corey Dickerson move, a move which is going to need its own oral history in 15 years... what a weird decision.)

If we flash forward to the past couple of days, both the moves the Rays have made have been far from the typical “sell” move. The trades of both Matt Andriese and Nathan Eovaldi brought back talent that is going to be with the major league side immediately. (The same goes for the Brad Miller trade from a month ago.)

It’s easy to see the moves the Rays are making and use that word “seller.” We live in a binary world that loves definitions. But I don’t believe it is as black and white as that. The Rays are making moves that they believe will make them better overall. The Eovaldi trade is a perfect example. The drop-off from Eovaldi to Beeks is, at most, a win in 2018, but they acquire an arm that has 6.5 years of control in exchange for a pitcher who is in a walk year. That’s not selling, that’s just good business.

Danny Russell: I have a hard time calling the acquisition of a bench player like Joey Wendle “buying,” and that’s mostly because of what calling a team a “buyer” or “seller” means. Those terms have specific applications at the trade deadline, and it’s black and white. Either you’re gearing up for the playoffs and acquiring a Jason Bay (no wait...) a David De Jesus?

There’s not a great Rays metaphor here, but my point is that when you’re involved in deadline deals, you’re either adding playoffs for a playoff push, or you’re the farm for other teams to do so. If you have to choose one, the Rays are most definitely “sellers”!

Jim Turvey: I feel as though you may have contradicted yourself there. If everything is indeed black and white, how are the Wendle and, Schimpf, and Cron moves not “buy” moves? That’s why I’m fine with a lot of gray in the defining of the process. And by your same logic, if you were an Arizona Diamondbacks fan, and you just acquired Matt Andriese, wouldn’t you be shrugging it off even more than Wendle and co.? So can we really count it as a “selling” move?

Danny Russell: Those players were not acquired in context of the trade deadline, which is where I believe a conversation of “selling” and “buying” belongs. Wendle and Schimpf are charitably platoon players acquired in the off-season.

Jim Turvey: Interesting. So if you were a Dbacks fan, you would consider that Andriese move a “buy” move since it happened at the deadline? But it wouldn’t be anything if it happened in December?

Danny Russell: Indeed! In the same way the media at large called the Rays “buyers” when they added Dan Jennings and Lucas Duda for prospects last season.

Jim Turvey: I think there’s a very good chance the Rays get a higher value from Michael Perez than the Dbacks get from Andriese, do you agree? Is it entirely an aesthetic thing for you? It’s like with porn, you just know who the buying team is when you see the trade?

And with regards to Jennings and Duda, the players they are bringing back this year are going to the MLB roster, so I don’t think those are fair comparisons.

Danny Russell: The trades we’ve seen for Eovaldi and Andriese are focused on near-major league ready acquisitions, which means those players will take their lumps when they’re added to the roster. That’s not “buying” at the trade deadline.

Jim Turvey: I guess where we don’t see eye-to-eye is that every single move has to be thrown into either a “buy” or “sell” bucket. Which is more of a semantics argument than anything else. I will say, the breaking point in my argument could come if the Rays move Ramos for a prospect. I think that if the Rays are indeed “sellers” they almost HAVE to trade Ramos, right?

Ian Malinowski: I think that Danny’s right, in that “buyers” and “sellers” mean a specific thing, often with regard to the trading deadline. It’s a term that has to do with positions on the win curve, and how that impacts current-win valuation, which has the most leverage across the league at the deadline. It’s not that every buy/sell dichotomy has to be at the trading deadline, it’s just that most of them are.

To define: Any trade that swaps a smaller amount of current wins for a larger amount of future wins is a buy/sell trade. The team that acquires current wins is the buyer, the team that gives up the current wins for future wins is the seller. In this context, Eovaldi for Beeks is certainly a sell for the Rays. Andriese for Perez (plus Shaffer) is more complicated, given the Rays current catching situation, but is probably a sell.

Jim is right though, that there’s something unusual about these Rays trades, and about how the Rays have historically operated, in that while they’re selling current wins, they’re doing it for an increase in wins in the near future (as soon as next year), rather than the distant future. That’s why it’s probably not right to call these trades “a rebuild.”

For me, the real problem is with the moralizing around selling. If we could just keep a cooler head about trades, and look past the headline and not get all worked up over whether or not the team was buying or selling, then I don’t think anyone would argue about the terms. We all agree that these trades are made to help the team win in the near future. We all agree that they make it less likely that the Rays will win the World Series this year. Right?

Jim Turvey: So, I guess I have one final hypothetical for you two: If the Rays were to go out and make a “buy” move tomorrow, would they still be “sellers”? Is this entire process — not just on an individual trade level — a binary one as well?

Danny Russell: If the Tampa Bay Rays go out and acquire Jacob deGrom, indicating a clear desire to make a push for the playoffs through an acquisition of a high performing player to help the major league squad right now, for this season, then I would say the Rays have flipped the script.

Jim Turvey: But if it was a minor move?

Danny Russell: Give me a player comp.

Jim Turvey: Zack Wheeler.

Danny Russell: Wheeler has a palatable FIP to be sure, and he’s about to become a free agent. I could see this spun as buying, on the outside chance the Rays close the nine-game gap to the Wild Card you need competent arms. The trick would be giving away less than Beeks to get Wheeler. The opportunity cost there is not letting the starters you have (who the Rays need to test at the major league level) get their reps, but it’s plausible. Yeah, I might call that buying, particularly if the Rays hold on to Wilson Ramos and Jonny Venters instead of continuing to deal away.

Jim Turvey: The fact that I have had to drag hypothetical into this doesn’t bode well for my argument’s validity, but my point is: I don’t think it would be shocking to see the Rays make a move where they got the better (or more accurately: the most valuable 2018) piece, and because of that, I think it’s hard to give them the full-on stamp of “seller.” I like the moves they have made (we need a catcher, and we can always use another “headliner” option), so maybe I’m biased, but the binary of buy/sell seems out of date, and I think we can do better.

Ian Malinowski: If the Rays go out and get Wheeler, then they’re both buyers and sellers. There’s no reason those things can’t happen at the same time! They value current wins less than the Red Sox, hence the possibility of a buy/sell trade. They value current wins more than the Mets, hence the possibility of a buy/sell trade.

I guess where I’m coming in is that you are what trades you make. If you make a single sell move, no matter how small, you’re a seller. If you make a single buy move, no matter how small, you’re a buyer. A single trade between a single set of teams is a simple binary, but the trade market as a whole contains multitudes!

Jim Turvey: Interesting. I suppose I could come close to agreement on the “each move needs a distinction, but teams can do both” sentiment. I still don’t think I “buy” the notion fully, but I’m not willing to “sell” the idea entirely either.

Ian Malinowski: In the end, I think the definition is fairly simple, and the more interesting question, as always, is why we care about this definition. It’s obviously a hot button of some type. Why do we want a team to be labeled one way or the other? What difference does it make? Why is this market not strictly transactional and boring, but instead has some morality of success attached to it? Is the entire reason I’m here arguing for a precise definition because I think moralities of success are bad for society? Well yes. I’ll give you that last one.

So where do you come down, DRB readers? On the side of good and righteousness (Jim’s side), or on the side of all that is evil (Danny’s and Ian’s side)? Or do you take a theme from this very article itself, and say that it can be a little of all things?