After Snell Trade, Tampa Bay’s System Depth Approaches 20,000 Leagues by Eric Longenhagen December 28, 2020 Late last night, the Padres and Rays consummated a blockbuster trade that is a microcosm of the two orgs’ approaches to contention. Tampa Bay sent electric lefty Blake Snell to the pitching-hungry Padres for a collection of four young players: Luis Patiño, Blake Hunt, Cole Wilcox, and Francisco Mejía. The move bolsters a San Diego rotation that was beset by injuries so late and so severe in 2020 that the club’s rotation depth and quality for next season was clearly still lacking despite their trade deadline efforts to improve it. The Padres have spent most of the last several years building one of the most impressive collections of minor league talent in the sport and, now that they’ve closed much of the gap between themselves and the Dodgers, have begun cashing in their prospect chips for elite big leaguers, while the Rays continue to bet on their ability to scout minor leaguers who can turn into long-term pieces for their club given its limited payroll. Below are my thoughts on the prospects headed back to the Rays in the trade; Ben Clemens will assess the Snell side of the deal later today. The obvious headliner here is Patiño, who turned 21 in October. He’s coming off a rocky rookie year during which the Padres promoted him to work in a multi-inning relief role. In mostly two-ish-inning outings, Patiño threw 17.1 innings, struck out 21, walked 14, and amassed a 5.19 ERA. Despite the poor surface-level performance in a small sample, Patiño’s stuff was strong. His fastball sat 95-99 all year, his mid-80s slider was often plus, and his power changeup, which is often 87-91 mph, also has the look of a bat-missing pitch. Despite his velocity, Patiño’s fastball wasn’t generating frequent swings and misses, perhaps because it sometimes has a little bit of natural cut, especially when Patiño is locating it to his glove side. Fastballs with cutting action tend to run into more bats than ones with a combination of tail and rise. The Rays altered Pete Fairbanks’ heater in such a way that they were able to correct this for 2020 and got an extra gear out of him. It’s possible they’ll do the same with Patiño. What about the walks? Patiño’s arm action looked pretty long this year for someone his size, and this may have contributed to his inconsistent feel for locating his fastball. If his fastball ends up having more carry because of a small release tweak, it’ll be less important for him to have fine command of the pitch. But Patiño’s so athletic and so young, and has grown into such huge stuff so quickly, that it’s possible feel for pitching will still come just from reps. Regardless of the avenue he takes, I think Patiño is likely to be an All-Star starting pitcher for the Rays in the coming years, and perhaps a face of their franchise. The prospect who will rank next-highest on a Rays list, which promises to be of Biblical proportion, is 22-year-old catcher Blake Hunt. Every year the Padres seem to draft an early-round high schooler who blew up during his senior spring. A huge part of evaluating high schoolers occurs during the summer before their senior year, when they’re playing most of the other elite high schoolers from across the country. But the Padres seem to like to pop a late-riser, or someone obscured by injury, every year. They’ve used picks on guys like Joshua Mears, Sam Keating, Owen Caissie, Mason House, or Mason Thompson, and in 2017 they drafted Blake Hunt, who was so lost (along with Jacob Amaya) among a huge crop of Los Angeles-area prep talent (Danner, Greene, Lewis, Pratto, Crouse, Estrada, Allen, Ward, etc) that he didn’t even make the SoCal Area Codes team (a regional, draft and scout-driven All-Star team) the summer before his draft year. Instead, Hunt’s ascent came the following spring, and he got a $1.6 million bonus to keep him from going to Pepperdine. After parts of three perfectly fine pro seasons (.258/.341/.384), Hunt was 13th on my 2020 Padres preseason list and by the end of the year, rose to 10th by way of trades and graduations. Here’s what I wrote at that time: After two consecutive years of above-average offensive performance relative to his league and continued resolve that he is a viable defensive catcher, Hunt now looks like he has a real chance to be an everyday backstop. I’ve seen him pop as low as 1.88 on throws to second and, despite his size, he’s agile enough and has sufficient hands to receive and frame big league stuff. Hunt also has a contact-oriented approach at the plate, one that’s quite conservative (zero leg kick) and doesn’t take full advantage of his movement skills. It relies entirely on Hunt’s hands to generate power, and that will likely result is 12-ish homers and a bunch of doubles. It’s a second-division look to me, but I think there’s more ceiling on the game power if Hunt’s lower half gets more involved in his swing. Below is backfield video of Hunt that’s emblematic of the swing description at the end of that report. And here’s backfield video of Hunt this Fall, when he was among the buzzier prospects in Arizona. Here's Hunt hitting a huge tank off of Mason Thompson on the last day of instructs. Thompson sat 96-99 both times I saw him, plus slider, and got put on the 40-man this off-season. Hunt hit a ball like 430ft to left at Chase Field a few days before I shot this. pic.twitter.com/EDaQdLJuXo — Eric Longenhagen (@longenhagen) December 28, 2020 He’s still a relatively conservative hitter, but the increased movement in his lower half and some of the strength he’s gained through physical maturity have made a substantive difference to the quality of his contact to my eye. He can stay pretty short to the ball and still generate power to all fields just by turning his top hand over through contact. The gap-to-gap spray of well-struck fly balls combined with his bedrock defensive foundation make Hunt a really good everyday catching prospect. He’ll be toward the back of my overall top 100 later this offseason. Now that the Rays have acquired Patiño, Hunt, and Heriberto Hernandez, they’ve added three top 100 prospects this offseason and now have 10 50 FV or better prospects in their system. And it’s possible they’ll eventually be joined by Cole Wilcox, the Padres 2020 third rounder, a sophomore-eligible prospect who got a well-over-slot $3.3 million. As a high schooler, Wilcox ranked 14th on our 2018 draft list but some teams were scared of his mature frame and delivery and he ended up at Georgia for two years. Here is his pre-draft report: Wilcox pitched out of the bullpen throughout much of his freshman year and was routinely sitting 97-99 in that role, often touching 100. As a starter in 2020, Wilcox was sitting 93-96 with more consistent command (he walked no hitters in his final three starts and walked just two in 23 total innings) than he had as a freshman, and more effective slider shape. When it’s right, Wilcox has a biting, two-plane out pitch in the slide piece, which sits in the 85-89 range and often has more length than any pitch that hard has a right to be. Those two pitches and his current command would be enough to project Wilcox in a late-inning bullpen role, but a better change or split (the development of which was slowed by his freshman role) would enable him to be a mid-rotation piece so long as he retains his velo in pro ball, since the shape of the heater makes it velo-dependent. I did not see Wilcox in the Fall and the trade happened too late for me to source fresh dope from some scouts who did, but I do have some contemporaneous notes from that period that have him going five strong innings several times during San Diego’s Instructional League run. He’s likely to remain in the 45 FV tier this offseason and he projects as an impact piece of some kind, though he’s certainly on the starter/reliever line. Finally there’s the 25-year-old Francisco Mejía, who has been playing for Estrellas Orientales in the Dominican Winter League and has fallen short of most public-facing prospect writers’ expectations during his parts of four years in the big leagues. The worst case outcome for Mejía was that a) he’d end up not being capable of catching and b) his over-aggressive approach at the plate would make it hard for him to profile as a either third base or in an outfield corner, and both of those things have happened so far. Mejía, who has been catching marginal stuff in LIDOM, still struggles with both some basic catching fundamentals (he’s a horrendous ball-blocker) as well as the more subtle intricacies of the position. Before trading him to San Diego for Brad Hand, Cleveland tried him at third and in the outfield for a brief stretch, and the Padres continued with some left field trials in 2019. Because Tampa Bay is so thin at catcher (a re-signed Mike Zunino and toolsy, but flawed, Ronaldo Hernández were the only two on the 40-man until this trade), I expect Mejía will come to camp to compete for a share of playing time, but Tampa Bay’s penchant for versatility may cause them to try him elsewhere. If they don’t, he’s an interesting late-game gamble as a switch-hitting, offensive-minded catcher when the Rays are behind. If they’re winning games late, he needs to come off the field. And this of course assumes Mejía ends up being a useful offensive player, which to this point, he hasn’t been because he swings at everything. That’s continued during his 2020 LIDOM stint with las Estrellas, who are giving more reps to Christian Bethancourt than Mejía. This deal impacts San Diego’s catching situation, too. The recently-acquired Austin Nola has several years of team control left, and I have a stronger evaluation on fellow 2017 draftee Luis Campusano (the Padres took three high school catchers that year, if you count Alaskan infield convert Jonny Homza) than I do on Hunt, so even though they’re parting with two catchers in this deal, the Padres still have two talented big leaguers on their 40-man roster and are trading from a position of strength, which makes losing Hunt sting a bit less. But Campusano is still just 22 and his 2021 status is complicated by a marijuana bust in Georgia (the amount he had on him is a felony there, but a misdemeanor in other states), so now that Mejía is gone, it makes sense for the Padres to acquire a veteran backup sometime this offseason. It stings to part with a talent like Snell despite his obvious rift with Kevin Cash and the org based on their proactive removal of him during last year’s postseason. Their return includes a pitching prospect who could be at least as good as Snell, and two other players either in or close to the top 100 overall prospects in baseball, which closely mimics the package they got in return for Chris Archer a few years ago.