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Why the Rays traded Rich Hill to the Mets

It wasn’t money.

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Tampa Bay Rays v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Rays surprised us by executing on a trade deadline move a week early — bringing in DH Nelson Cruz, one of the best hitters in baseball, in exchange for two well-regarded pitching prospects from the deep farm system.

Today they surprised us again, by trading veteran LHP Rich Hill.

Yes, as one 41-year old comes in the door, another leaves — but that’s about as far as the connection goes.

Baseball commentators have already pushed out several narratives to discuss Rich Hill’s departure, and most of them are wrong.

First is that this deal was made to save the Rays money, a reasonable expectation given that Rich Hill should be expensive, given his reputation. It turns out, however, that Rich Hill is not expensive. He signed with the Rays last February for a bargain rate at $2.5 million in pursuit of, “the opportunity to win — and win now.”

Nevertheless, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal laid the groundwork for this narrative this morning in discussing Nelson Cruz’s $5 million salary remaining for the rest of the 2021 season, writing:

The Rays being the Rays, it would not be a shock if they took further advantage of their pitching depth to trim a bit of salary. And in a market starved for starting pitching, it probably would behoove them to explore what teams such as the Dodgers and Mets might offer for left-hander Rich Hill, 41.

A trade of Hill only would save the Rays slightly more than $800,000, but every penny counts for a team that last offseason traded lefty Blake Snell and was outbid by the Braves in its effort to re-sign free-agent righty Charlie Morton.

The Rich Hill trade materialized just hours later, and with these words rattling around in my mind I was quick to assume this was indeed a salary dump, as many online thought as well.

Simple math destroys that narrative, however. The Rays return for Rich Hill is not just a prospect — 2020 4th round catcher Matt Dyer — but includes former Rays reliever Tommy Hunter, who is playing on a $2.25 million contract. So nearly everything they save in moving Hill they will now pay to Tommy Hunter (who incidentally is on the IL with an unknown return date).

The second tempting narrative is that the Rays were unhappy with Rich Hill, either for comments he made to Kevin Cash after he was lifted from a game on July 5th with less than four innings of work, or because his spin rate had dropped following MLB’s mid-season rule change on pitchers using sticky substances, with his performance taking a slight dip as well.

Those narratives are also false. The Rays understood and appreciated Rich Hill’s preference to play for a contender, and for a team that would value him as a starting pitcher, which is why the Rays have sent him to the NL East and the in-contention Mets.

In other words, respect is still a factor in their treatment of Rich Hill.

Additionally, although spin rate might be down approximately 200 rpm for Hill and his velo has been dipping all season, his movement remains relatively unchanged. It’s within the realm of possibility for Hill to turn things around, which means now is a better time to deal than later.

The truest narrative here is that the Rays have too many pitchers, with Michael Wacha recently returned from injury, Luis Patiño ready to rejoin the major league side in a consistent role, and with both Chris Archer and Nick Anderson rehabbing this month.

All four of those pitchers were hurt previously this season — and the Rays might be adding more pitchers accordingly — but by comparison Rich Hill might be a riskier proposition than the rest, at least in terms of performance through the rest of the season.

In short, this is a trade where everybody wins. Rich Hill gets to keep pitching for a contender, on his own terms, while the Rays add a prospect they like without having to worry about whether the over-the-hill Hill will be headed to the IL.