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Rays Trade Target: RHP Joe Musgrove

Could the Pirates top arm be the answer to the Rays rotation gap?

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

After the Tampa Bay Rays traded their former American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell they have been looking for an experienced pitcher to help cover innings in the near term.

For mine and most Rays fans I imagine they would feel more comfortable entering the season with a pitcher expected to join Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough at the top of the rotation. One pitcher that should be looked at is Joe Musgrove of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Joe Musgrove was the major piece the Pirates received in the Gerrit Cole trade. In the three seasons since moving to the Pirates he has thrown 325.1 innings with a 4.23 ERA/3.69 FIP/4.03 xFIP.

Musgrove doesn’t lack for options on the mound as he throws six pitches, and five at least 10% of the time. He throws three fastballs, and his most used pitch is a 92-96 mph four-seam fastball with a 92-94 mph sinker and 87-90 mph cutter thrown in to lesser degrees. His secondary weapons of choice are a mid 80s changeup and low 80s slider and curveball. Though the slider and curveball come in at near the same speed there is major difference in the movement as the curve gets an additional 6 inches of downward movement.

Prior to 2020 Musgrove didn’t rely on the strikeout, posting strikeout rates between 20.6% and 21.9%, but in 2020 that soared to 33.1%. This was at the cost of his walk rate jumping from 5-6% to 9.6%, but this led to career bests in all three pitcher slash lines with a 3.86 ERA, 3.42 FIP, and 3.19 xFIP.

The biggest change in pitch mix for the 2020 season was that he moved about 10% of his four-seamers to curveballs, giving him three pitches he could rely on against batters of both hands. Musgrove is interesting in that he will rarely throw a changeup against right handed batters and ramps up the slider usage.

2020 was a very small sample of 39.2 innings after Musgrove missed about a month with triceps inflammation after his first start. He came back very strong for the final month of the season.

Due to not being overly reliant on the strikeout, getting him in front of a quality defense should help cut down some of the ERA/FIP gap that he has shown. From 2018-20 the Rays have been a top ten defensive team by both DRS and UZR while the Pirates come in the bottom ten by DRS but third worst in the league by UZR.

Trade Cost

It’s easy to identify a player you like, but consummating a trade can be difficult. In this case the Pirates are known to be shopping the player and don’t look to be competitive in the near term. Accordingly, since Ben Cherrington has taken over as the General Manager the Pirates have been looking for younger prospects as he looks to guide them through a full rebuild.

Musgrove has two years of arbitration remaining with 2021 projected to come in between $3.2-4.4MM. With a good season he would likely be looking at a $4-6MM raise for 2022 combining for something in the $10-15MM range over two years.

Option 1: Textbook trade

The strongest offer the Rays could make would come from positions of depth: second base prospects, and pitching. This is the first deal that I think looks reasonably like something the Pirates could look to target in 2B Xavier Edwards, RHP JJ Goss, and SS Alejandro Pie.

But even these prospects might be a touch older than what the Pirates are targeting in their long rebuild. When looking at lower level prospects it becomes much more difficult to reasonably guesstimate who teams might prefer as the evaluations on players become much more polarizing.

This kind of offer is a typical one that has a headliner in Baseball America’s #81 overall prospect Edwards and then two further away players that could move up the lists over the next couple of years.

However the Rays are typically reluctant to trade top prospects as their trade of Matthew Liberatore in the Randy Arozarena trade is one of the only times I recall them doing so. In other words, the Rays would likely try to make the trade look more like the Yu Darvish deal than the Blake Snell trade.

Option 2: Let the Pirates cast a wide net

This might actually be more ideal for the Pirates as they take on more risk but also look for more upside if teams aren’t willing to move an elite prospect for an above average pitcher with two years of team control remaining.

So what could this type of deal look like?

The Rays could send RHP Nick Bitsko, RHP JJ Goss, SS Alejandro Pie, and OF Nick Schnell to the Pirates for RHP Joe Musgrove.

In this type of the deal the Rays would send their 2020 first round pick Bitsko (who may not be desired due to a recent surgery), 2019 supplemental first round pick Goss, 2018 compensation round A pick Schnell, and their top 2018 internal free agent signing.

This is still costly though the Rays would be able to add an above average arm without dealing any of their eight prospects currently on the Baseball America Top 100.

This mix of players isn’t likely the exact trade parameters I would expect, but they fit the kind of pieces the Pirates are looking for and are pieces the Rays could find expendable for short term help. If these do not fit the needs of the Pirates, the Rays could also partner with a third team that has acquirable teenage talent and that might meet up with the Rays MLB or near-MLB surplus on the position player side.