If you’re looking to improve the Tampa Bay Rays, a 90+ win team that made a strong playoff run, you have two roads to take.
The first is through marginal improvements — making upgrades to part-time players to make the team a bit stronger than it was before. The easiest way to do so is through the team’s free agent openings (Avisail Garcia, Travis d’Arnaud, Eric Sogard), but it could also be done in upgrades to returning part-time contributors (Matt Duffy, Guillermo Heredia). One might call this the more likely route as well.
Marginal improvements matter, but there is certainly a more exciting road to take: the drastic upgrade. Yes, every team wants to significantly upgrade where opportunities arise on the market, and all will be looking to acquire top performers.
If a big name like, say, Francisco Lindor is going to hit the trade block as the Indians rebuild, the Rays will likely not be interested in competing in a bidding war with their prospects, who help keep the team’s payroll manageable.
Instead, the Rays will be better suited to buy low on a great talent who might be under-performing or may be in need a change of scenery. Essentially, they need another Tommy Pham trade.
Pham was an NL-MVP candidate who fell out with the management in St. Louis, and was available to the Rays in a deal of two prospects who needed to be protected on the 40-man roster but did not have a clear path to contribute in the coming year.
The result of the trade was an enormous success, with Pham becoming arguably the Rays best overall player ever since his arrival.
Can the Rays pull off that trick again?
If you want to replicate the conditions of the Tommy Pham trade, it’s a simple exercise. You start with the players who received MVP votes from both leagues the year previously (2018), and look for either change of scenery types, or players who might have taken a “step back” in 2019.
Change of scenery is subjective, but working backwards to eliminate hitters who are definitely not moving (like, say, Altuve and Bregman), here’s a list of 12 names from the 2018 MVP voting, with their year-over-year change in wRC+ identified in the far right column.
First impression is that, wow, a lot of MVP candidates took a step back the following year. I’m using the term “candidate” loosely here to just mean vote getter, but work with me here. I think some of these we can cross off pretty quickly from being a Tommy Pham-like trade candidate.
The first name that should jump out to a Rays fan here is Jesus Aguilar, who was the only one of the players on that list traded........ to Tampa Bay! The Rays already did this!
Well, they acquired a good player who happened to have received MVP votes the year prior when his value was low. Aguilar remains under contract, but may not be the “next” Tommy Pham. Aguilar had a bell curve season, struggling early and late in the year, and is a candidate to be released this season.
Davis is the loss leader in wRC+ on the list above, and boy is his contract looking bloated, with two years, $33.5 million remaining. Cross him off.
Carpenter and Cain are key role players on post-season teams, and both are in good standing with their organizations, so I’m tempted to call both cross-off’s as well, but you’d at least want to place a call on Carpenter. He’s three years removed from an All-Star performance and entering his age 34 season, and he’s paid a little more than Davis will be over the next two years, but there’s upside and used to have positional flexibility that was highly valued which could still be in there. I expect neither team wants a deal on these though.
Then there are names like Baez and Chapman that any team would want to have on their roster. Both are too important to the teams they play for to be dealt at this time. Easy cross off’s.
That leaves five names.
- Mookie Betts — 185 wRC+ in 2018 (1st place), 135 wRC+ in 2019 (8th)
- J.D. Martinez — 170 wRC+ in 2018 (4th), 139 wRC+ in 2019 (21st)
The Boston Red Sox, now helmed by Chaim Bloom, are unlikely to deal a star player to the Rays, but they’ll likely be putting one of the two players above up for the highest bidder, which the Rays could certainly be if motivated.
Martinez just opted into his contract for 2020 to stay in Boston, which is what spawned these payroll consequences for the Red Sox, with their team looking to shed payroll shortly to get under the tax/“cap.” It would be far more palatable in Boston to deal Martinez and his $23.75 million salary to free up his finances, but the Rays likely don’t want to dedicate one-third of their payroll to a DH via an expensive, in-division trade.
Betts? Well, if you’re gonna shell out in prospects, acquiring one of the five best players in baseball isn’t a tough row to hoe, even if you like your prospects. The Rays have the top farm system in the game (again) and the Sox have one of the worst (again). Bloom understands who is untouchable in the Rays farm intimately, which actually makes a potential trade maybe easier? Maybe?
If Betts were available, and prospects Bloom liked made sense, the Rays shouldn’t blink to acquire him, regardless of any payday coming Betts’s way. We’re talking about one of the few position players in baseball who can transform a roster. It doesn’t matter that he’d projected to make north of $27 million next season. The Rays have had a low payroll for a decade, you can afford a superstar if one falls in your lap. It’s the “fall in your lap” part that’s more unlikely. Bloom trading Betts as his first move would spell disaster for his relationship with Boston’s fans, and accordingly, I doubt it happens.
Besides, neither of these supposed trades are gonna be low-cost acquisitions like the Pham deal was. If you’re looking for the next Pham trade, it’s not in-division or in Boston.
- Jose Ramirez — 146 wRC+ in 2018 (3rd), 104 wRC+ in 2019 (No votes)
- Francisco Lindor — 130 wRC+ in 2018 (6th), 114 wRC+ in 2019 (15th)
There’s another team with a Pham candidate that is more of a Rays-type. And good news: he plays for a rebuilding team at a position of flux on the Rays with premium defense.
No, not the 26-year old Lindor. If we’re looking for a Pham candidate, Lindor at the top of his game is not it. The Indians would be wise to keep their star players, but if they do deal him it’s for a boatload of prospects and (as with the Red Sox nonsense above) that’s not the kind of trade we’re looking for here.
Jose Ramirez batted terribly in the first half of the season, with a mere 68 wRC+ in the first half, but rebounded strongly with a 176 wRC+ in the second half (until a hand injury ended his season). He’s still very good, and he’s also very young. His struggles also potentially soured his tenure in Cleveland enough to not cause a revolt through his trade.
Ramirez is entering his age-27 season and is under contract for two more years, which would give Tampa Bay a solid answer at third base for a great player in his prime. Where Lindor is projected to make $17 million next season through arbitration, Ramirez is already locked into a contract: $6.65 million in 2020, $9.4 million in 2021, and two options ($11 million and $13 million). Ain’t nothin’ more Rasy than that.
Cleveland likely values Ramirez far higher than St. Louis valued Pham at the time he was traded, but as in the Pham trade, the Rays would be wise to include some of their players who will soon need 40-man-roster space, like 3B Kevin Padlo and LHP Kenny Rosenberg, but whose path to the majors with the Rays is a little fuzzy when unproven at the major league level.
Ok, one more player, one I bumped down into this section after I thought I was done writing.
- Justin Turner — 154 wRC+ in 2018 (14th), 132 wRC+ in 2019 (No votes)
Turner is about to finish up a four-year deal with his highest salary yet, $20 million. The Dodgers, meanwhile, are actively considering Anthony Rendon to man... huh, where Turner plays at third base. They also have Gavin Lux on the way.
If Friedman’s Dodgers were looking to play ball on salary, perhaps eating $5 million, I can’t help but wonder if Turner would be expendable, and thereby be an interesting trade target for the Rays.
The only player on the Rays offense to outperform Turner by WAR or wRC+ last season was All-Star Austin Meadows. His defensive metrics were not the prettiest — 2019 was his first season since 2012 with negative DRS at third base — but on net, he is still a three-win player.
I’m circling Turner here in case the Dodgers want a new plan at third base, as this right-handed hitter would certainly help balance out the Rays roster in ways they seem to value.
If you had to chose one to pursue, though, I’d lean Ramirez for the “next” Tommy Pham; heck, I’d do my best to acquire him.
What say you?