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What if... The Rays traded for Jeff McNeil in 2018?

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This trade does not seem rooted in reality, but it’s a perfect what if!

MLB: Miami Marlins at New York Mets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes you win trades and sometimes you lose trades, but what about the rumored trades that never actually go down?

While we can never be sure if these nationally reported trade rumors are in fact true, it’s a fun exercise to look back on reported discussions. This rumor from 2018 features a trade that makes us question the validity of the report, but was one I couldn’t help thinking about so let’s dive in.

What did the rumored deal look like?

Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported that the Rays were focused on Jeff McNeil in trade talks during the 2018 offseason. He goes on the speculate that a hypothetical trade that New York may have been interested in could look like this:

  • Mets receive: Kevin Kiermaier, Yonny Chirinos
  • Rays receive: Jeff McNeil

At the time of these talks, Kiermaier was 28 years old and four years remaining on his contract while Chirinos was just 24 years old with five years of team control remaining. Jeff McNeil was 26 years old and had just came off of his debut season in which he hit .329/.381/.471 and produced 2.7 fWAR in just 63 games. He also had six more years of team control remaining, making him very valuable in trade. McNeil mostly played second base in New York but has some experience at third and in the outfield corners.

The confusing part is that Tampa Bay had just promoted and extended another left-handed hitting second basemen in Brandon Lowe at this time, making McNeil’s potential fit on the roster unclear. Joey Wendle (yet another left-handed hitting second basemen) was also coming off of a great first season with Tampa Bay in which he posted 3.8 fWAR in 139 games.

If these talks did indeed have merit, then the Rays clearly weren’t too concerned about the potential construction of the roster, but rather were focused on trying to acquire a player with a bright future while figuring out the logjam later.

What actually happened?

McNeil turned out to be a quality player in New York and certainly one that could’ve helped the past few Rays teams. In his first three big league seasons, he posted wRC+ values of 136, 144, and 131 respectively before faltering to a 93 wRC+ in 2021. FanGraphs even ranked McNeil at 39 on their top 50 list of players with the most trade value just one year later in 2019.

The Rays ended up holding on to both Yonny Chirinos and Kevin Kiermaier as they are both still with the team at this moment. Knowing what we do now, we can view this hypothetical trade from the lens of WAR:

  • McNeil has produced 6.4 fWAR and 8.0 bWAR since the start of 2019
  • Chirinos and Kiermaier have combined for 6.9 fWAR and 9.9 bWAR since the start of 2019

The bulk of the lifting on the Rays side of this equation has been done by Kevin Kiermaier, who has still shown that he is a capable producer when he’s healthy. Chirinos put together a strong 2019 season (133.1 IP, 3.85 ERA) but unfortunately tore his UCL in his third appearance of 2020. He is also expected to miss the first few months of 2022.

While the Rays side of this deal does look to be the better end up to this point, another note to consider is that McNeil would have only made a fraction of the salary that Kiermaier and Chirinos combined to make.

Are the Rays better off?

Sure, the McNeil side of this trade has won from a WAR per dollar perspective, but there was no indication that the Rays were struggling from a budget perspective at this time.

Tampa Bay had just gotten out from underneath Evan Longoria’s contract in the previous offseason which freed up payroll immensely. In 2018, The Rays used this new spending power to ink Charlie Morton to a $30M contract as well as including cash in trades like they did to land Yandy Diaz from Cleveland. Why make the team worse just to save a few bucks at a time where the Rays weren’t strapped for cash?

Aside from the money, McNeil has quite simply not matched the production that Kiermaier and Chirinos have provided for Tampa Bay. You could argue that the gap in production is even larger than the WAR values suggest because of how highly the Rays value Kiermaier’s defense.

Kiermaier’s name has been in the rumor mill for years now, but Tampa Bay has been reluctant to trade him likely because his defense is more valuable in the eyes of Rays executives than it is in the public sphere. If Kiermaier was dealt, it would have been tough for the Rays to find a centerfield replacement as Avisail Garcia was the only other in-house option who was capable there.

Additionally, subtracting Chirinos would have made hole in the rotation that the Rays would have likely needed to fill externally as well. Would creating those gaps just to add another second basemen (arguably the teams deepest position) have been worth it?

These reasons make it tough to believe Joel Sherman’s report. Maybe the two sides did indeed discuss McNeil in trade talks, but perhaps with a different idea of a return. Would Joey Wendle going back in the deal have made sense for New York? What about a highly touted prospect like Brendan McKay, who could have shown off his hit tool alongside his pitching abilities in National league games?

The reality is that this deal would have been an awkward fit from the beginning, even though McNeil looked like a promising player and did turn out to be one. Coincidentally, McNeil has been reported to be on the trade block again this offseason, we’ll have to wait and see if a deal finally comes to fruition.