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What are the Rays waiting for?

The Rays failed to land RHP Corey Kluber or RHP Joe Musgrove... What’s next?

MLB: DEC 17 Yoshitomo Tsutsugo Press Conference Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Rays are in the hunt for at least one more top flight arm to add into the rotation now that Charlie Morton was granted free agency and Blake Snell was traded to the Padres. We have profiled some of the best options along the way, and over the weekend two have moved on.

The first was two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, who (as we put on the site) seemed destined to sign with the Yankees — and he did. Per reports the Rays were serious suitors for Kluber’s services, but the Yankees had three distinct advantages:

  1. The Yankees just hired Kluber’s personal trainer to head up their athletic department, a factor that may have played a disproportionate role in this decision given that Kluber is coming off two years of injury.
  2. Brian Cashman was able to drop a guaranteed deal on the table from the jump. With both Snell and Morton gone the Rays have plenty of cash to spend this season now on pitching, but the reality of the Rays risk tolerance likely meant they wanted an incentive laden deal, in the style of Rich Hill or Charlie Morton had recently negotiated. I have no inside information there, but the logic is sound. The Yankees can take an $11 million hit if Kluber proves to be injured a third year running, the Rays likely could not.
  3. The Yankees are putting the band back together, not tearing things down. If you’re a top free agent, are you going to choose the team that just removed from the roster two pitchers who were Cy Young winners or finalists over the last two seasons, or are you picking the team dropping $90 million on a top free agent? When the Rays drop their line in the free agent pool, their worms are landing Michael Wachas, not Corey Klubers; not without winning a bidding war.

Tampa Bay might have cash to spend, but the risk tolerance for being wrong on that cash is far lower than what New York can afford. Presumably, once more financial things are moved around, the Yankees should have a front three of Cole, Tanaka, and Kluber, all three signed with cold hard cash. The Rays have to compete on a different playing field than that. Move along, move along...

To the trade market. It was a real stunner to see the Padres moving for a third competitive arm for their re-vamped rotation. Let’s dive into this this deal:

The Pittsburgh Pirates trade RHP Joe Musgrove to the San Diego Padres for LHP Joey Lucchesi, OF Hudson Head, RHP David Bednar, LHP Omar Cruz, and RHP Drake Fellows.

Pittsburgh trades Lucchesi to New York Mets for C/OF Endy Rodriguez.

This one is the real headscratcher. Hudson Head is a neat piece and had helium this year in instructs. Rodriguez... had the opposite going for him.

Ultimately, the Pirates turned a decent arm making only ~$12 million over the next two seasons into several pieces, which is not problematic in a weird offseason — the Rays did the same with Nate Lowe, a similarly obvious trade piece, and were applauded for the return — but when the cost of starting pitching is sky high, making a move for five lesser pieces feels odd, especially when this is the front office’s narrative:

Pittsburg dealt for quantity, not quality. That is for the best when you’re looking to rebuild from the ground up, but it should have also opened up a bidding war.

Clearly, it didn’t.

If the Pirates were looking to diversify the return, baseball’s deepest farm system had plenty of options for Cherington to comb through. Prospects like RHP J.J. Goss, RHP Joe Ryan, SS Greg Jones, SS Alejandro Pie, C Ronaldo Hernandez, and probably 2B Tyler Frank all could have equaled Hudson Head in value or possibly offered a better return.

Maybe the Pirates were specifically targeting the return they got — Head from San Diego and Rodriguez from New York feel like targeted asks. Maybe the Pirates didn’t want to deal with the Rays for a starting pitcher after the Chris Archer trade blew up in their faces. Maybe the Rays simply didn’t value Musgrove enough to push better chips than Goss into the pile to win a bidding war against the Padres pieces left over from their many trades. Or maybe the Rays have a different pitcher they’re targeting.

Any way you slice it, it’s shocking the Rays couldn’t best this deal. It’s ok when the Rays lose a bidding war where dollars and cents are the currency exchanged, but in the case of Musgrove you’d expect the Rays to find a way to graduate from bridesmaids to the bride. Musgrove is not Blake Snell or Charlie Morton, but he’d still slot second in the 2021 Rays rotation, and the currency made sense.