Look Rays, I get it. I also hate it.
On the field, on the spreadsheet, I can make this deal work. Tommy Pham is an excellent baseball player, who’s been an All-Star level player throughout his career, but he’s also going to be 32 in 2020, and there were some worrying signs last year, even before the series of second-half injuries. Basically, he may have lost a step.
While his overall sprint speed was still pretty good, at 28.7 feet/second, his jumps, as measured by Statcast, were in the bottom third of the league. And if it seemed to your eyes like Tommy Pham just wasn’t making a lot of plays in the outfield last year that maybe he should have had a chance on, that’s because he wasn’t. The Statcast fielding metric had Pham as one of the worst outfielders in baseball, down with the likes of Domingo Santana and Kyle Schwarber.
Yes, some of that came from when Pham was toughing it out through serious injuries that would have landed many players on the Injured List. But overall the season created some legitimate doubt about Pham’s projection going forward. It made him no longer that “sure-fire, slam-dunk, one-of-the-best-players-in-baseball” talismanic star.
Hunter Renfroe has sneaky upside, especially if you believe in his outlier 2019 DRS and UZR defense metrics, and the prospect Xavier Edwards could become really good.
So yes, I get it. But here a few things I also believe:
1. This trade makes the Rays worse in the immediate present. If it did not, the Padres would not be sending over a legitimate prospect like Xavier Edwards.
2. The Rays are absolutely a World Series contender next year, with a deep and talented roster, and at the same time could miss the playoffs out of an always-tough AL East. That means that current wins are highly leveraged on their win curve.
3. Even if this trade has positive expected value for the Rays, the likely magnitude of the potential win is small. I do not believe Tommy Pham is going to fall off a cliff in the next two years and end up with significant negative value. I do not believe Hunter Renfroe is going to deliver an MVP-caliber season, which is something Pham puts on the table (albeit with diminishing likeliness). And prospects will break your heart. If the Rays are right, they’re right in a small way, on the margins.
4. Balanced against that potential small win, this trade does real and significant harm to the confidence and warm feelings throughout the fanbase that the 2018 and 2019 runs created. That flattens the win curve. The Rays may or may not have the data to measure it accurately, but the change is real, and measureable, and they should be considering that in their evaluation of potential trades.
5. This fanbase has already been beaten up: by the Rays midseason announcement of the Montreal split-season proposal; by the continuous speculation about relocation, and the recent announcement that it will be open bidding for 2028; by the constant talk about poor attendance both locally and around the league; by the uninformed derision of the national sports media toward the Rays small-market practices; by the persistent severing of the emotional attachments to well-liked local stars, such as David Price and Evan Longoria.
6. The effect of those attacks on the psyche of Rays fans is cumulative.
People will throw statements around like “salary dump,” and “the Rays are being cheap,” but that’s drawing a line between efficiency and winning baseball games that doesn’t exist.
Even if every MLB team could spend the exact same amount, the team that maximizes its $/WAR efficiency consistently is still going to be the one that wins over time. And the regional economic imbalances and Major League Baseball’s lack of will in addressing them make the playing field nothing like even, meaning that small market teams have to be more disciplined than their rivals in their search for efficiency if they want to keep competitive windows open beyond more than a few years.
On the playing field, $/WAR is life.
I will believe that the Rays made this deal because they believe that over the next five, maybe ten years it gives them more life; a greater chance to win baseball games and a World Series.
For me, and for many other fans, as the Rays decade-long decline in attendance indicates, it’s never been just about rooting for a good team. Laundry is important, but my Rays fandom is an expression of my identity to the world, and the specifics of who’s in the laundry matter.
I was proud to watch Tommy Pham. I liked him for his hardscrabble childhood, and the chip it put on his shoulder. I liked that he let the world see that chip. I liked him for his intensity. I liked him for his elite understanding of the strike zone, and his literacy of advanced value metrics. I liked him for trying to play through a broken hand, even though it was clearly affecting his swing. I liked him for the fact that after a week of futility at the plate, he somehow figured out how to hit through the pain, and then helped lead the Rays into the playoffs.
I live in New York now, and have a one and a half year old kid. He’s a native New Yorker. It’s caused me to spend time thinking about my place as a rival fan in an adopted city, and how I will explain to him why I root for the Rays, rather than the Yankees or the Mets. If he chooses to be a Rays fan, with what will I equip him to defend his fandom to classmates? How would I do it if I were having that talk right now?
I would explain to him how I view baseball as a regional class narrative, and tell him that Tampa Bay has fewer resources—fewer people, less industry, fewer millionaires—than New York, but that the Rays FO, by being smart and daring, compete anyway. I would say that the Rays develop great pitchers. I’d talk about Blake Snell’s curve and Tyler Glasnow’s “cut” fastball. I’d even talk about Chaz Roe’s slider, just for fun.
I’d also have told him all about Tommy Pham, the blue-collar alter-ego to the young, fun Rays core. I’d have said that Tommy Pham was as big a star as anyone the Yankees had. I’d have told him that “Success is revenge.” He’d have liked Tommy Pham.
By the time my son cares, there will be other stars to tell him about, but as I said above, the effect of every blow to one’s fandom is cumulative.
How many more blows will there have been by then?