For Whom The Snell Toils

As is fast becoming a holiday tradition, the Padres and Rays made a high-profile trade last night. Blake Snell, the former Cy Young winner and Rays ace, is headed to San Diego, as Dennis Lin, Josh Tolentino, and Ken Rosenthal first reported. The Padres are sending a bevy of players back, both prospects and major leaguers: Luis Patiño, Francisco Mejía, Blake Hunt, and Cole Wilcox.

Last time the two teams hooked up, Snell was virally critical of Tampa Bay’s perennial strategy: trade players a year too early rather than a year too late, prioritizing team control and pre-arbitration salaries over current production. Last year, that was Tommy Pham, whose $7 million arbitration projection simply didn’t work in Tampa. This time, Snell himself is the monetary sacrifice. The extension he signed before 2019 has three years and $40.8 million remaining, which is a phenomenal bargain for his employer and also too expensive for the penny-pinching Rays.

Snell immediately becomes the best pitcher in the Padres rotation, which boasts Chris Paddack, Dinelson Lamet, Zach Davies, and a sampler platter of interesting prospects headlined by Mackenzie Gore and Adrian Morejon. Mike Clevinger will miss 2021 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but he’ll return in 2022 to co-star in a spectacular rotation.

Snell may never recapture the overall production of his 2018 Cy Young season (1.89 ERA, 221 strikeouts in 180.2 innings), but he’s been consistently excellent for years now, albeit on a shorter leash than many elite pitchers. His strikeout rates hardly waver: 31.6% in 2018, 33.3% in 2019, and 31 % in 2020. His walk rates have been consistent as well: 9.1%, 9.1%, and 8.9% respectively.

Put it all together, and you get a solid and dependable pitcher. Run prevention is inherently volatile, but xFIP and SIERA, which attempt to strip out events outside a pitcher’s control in different ways, both think Snell has been consistently and similarly great. Both are scaled to resemble ERA, and he’s been stellar by both measures, with xFIPs between 3.06 and 3.31 over the last three years and SIERAs between 3.30 and 3.57. There’s nothing fluky about his dominance, either: he misses a ton of bats, hits the upper 90s, and boasts two excellent breaking balls.

The only thing missing from Snell’s resume is stamina. He went more than six innings 13 times in 2018, but that’s the last time he truly went deep into a game. He did it only twice in an injury-shortened 2019 and didn’t so much as enter the seventh inning in 2020. When Kevin Cash pulled Snell in the World Series, it was a controversial decision but also one Cash had been making all year.

About Snell’s short starts: who cares? A starter who goes seven innings most times out is a luxury, but it’s not a necessity by any means. The tradeoff isn’t between six innings from Snell and seven from some hypothetical ace; it’s between six from Snell and six from whatever starter San Diego would have called up instead. The Padres will have games where they wish Snell had slightly more in the tank, but you don’t acquire a pitcher for his ability to pitch in the seventh; you acquire him for his ability to consistently prevent runs when he’s on the mound, which Snell clearly possesses.

While the Padres won a series in the playoffs this year, they did it despite a threadbare starting rotation. Paddack and Davies each got starts in the first round, but with Clevinger and Lamet sidelined with injury, Craig Stammen made his first start since 2010 as part of a bullpen game. It was enough to win the series, but it presents a clear opportunity for improvement: Snell is one of the 30 or so best pitchers in baseball, and now he can handle one or two starts per playoff round.

In fact, at the major league level, this trade is basically pure upside for San Diego next year. Patiño is a stellar talent and a top 10 prospect in all of baseball, but he’s 21 and has thrown 20 not-so-good innings against major league competition. He’ll likely be better in 2021, but before 2020, he’d only thrown seven innings above A-ball; anything he delivers in the big leagues next year is an unexpected benefit. Wilcox and Hunt, too, are years away from contributing to a big league team.

As for Mejía, he’s a good reminder that prospects don’t always turn into what we expect. When the Padres traded for him in 2018, he was a Top 50-ish prospect, a polished offensive catcher with middling skills behind the plate. His hit tool hasn’t yet translated to the majors, and with Austin Nola in San Diego, he was ticketed for backup duty this year. The Padres will miss him, but only marginally. That’s not to say he has no value — players of Mejía’s pedigree don’t grow on trees, and he might be one adjustment away from fulfilling the promise he showed in the Cleveland system. For San Diego, however, he’s surplus.

Why make this trade, then, if you’re the Rays? It’s the money. Snell is unquestionably a great player, and he’s unquestionably a bargain. All 30 teams in baseball would add Blake Snell to their roster at his current contract terms and be ecstatic about it, Tampa Bay included. To build a team the way that Tampa Bay does, however, you can’t make your team out of Blake Snell types, at least not principally. The lifeblood of the Tampa Bay system is the pre-arbitration player, and Snell was simply the latest trade chip the Rays were able to leverage for more potential pre-arb stars.

Try to imagine constructing a roster that can compete with the best teams in baseball for under $70 million, as the Rays consistently do. Most teams would jump at the opportunity to replace their rotation with five clones of Snell, but the Rays literally couldn’t run out a full team at that price point given their extreme budget limitations. To make their system work, you need many contributors making a salary near the league minimum.

Competing in perpetuity under those self-imposed constraints adds a degree of difficulty to the juggling act. Snell himself was once one of the pre-arb stars around which Tampa built their spendthrift empire, and the team hopes Patiño will take that role in the future. Analysts and teams talk in terms of surplus value these days, but Tampa Bay’s comically low salary means that they have an extra criteria to satisfy: they need to get a sizable portion of their production from players with less than five or so years of service time.

Without that constraint, trading Snell wouldn’t make sense. The Rays just played in the World Series. They’re good right now. They aren’t rebuilding or tearing down; next year, they’ll once again try to win the World Series. It’s plainly obvious that a team of their talent level shouldn’t be subtracting elite pitching.

Think of it in an absurdly abstract sense, and let’s throw some ballpark numbers on it. Over the next three years, let’s say Blake Snell will produce $100 million of on-field value at a cost of $40 million in salary, a $60 million surplus. Let’s further posit that over his six years of team control, Patiño will produce $70 million of on-field value at a cost of $20 million in salary, a $50 million surplus.

In a vacuum, that’s a bad trade for the team dealing Snell. If you desperately need to pay only $20 million, though, then Patiño is the clear choice, even if it means giving up surplus value as defined by a neutral observer.

In fact, the Rays live on trades like these. They don’t win every trade, as the rumor goes, but they do advance a general strategy whenever possible. At every turn, Tampa Bay hunts for value from players they can control at bargain basement rates for an extended period of time. They value production too, of course, but given the budget game they choose to play, salary has to be king. If you’re going to compete for 10 years using minimum salary players, you need to acquire and develop as many promising prospects as possible.

It’s unclear whether the abbreviated season forced Tampa Bay’s hand in trading Snell. Regardless of the specifics of the deal, the Rays were always likely to trade someone like Snell. They were always likely to look for a return like the one they got — a high-likelihood stud performer plus a sampler platter of interesting prospects. It might be an awkward time for the franchise, and it might fit weirdly in the win curve, but that’s all noise compared to the need to push chips forward in time and towards cheaper players.

From their perspective, the Padres won this trade. They flipped future assets and an excess piece for one of the best pitchers in baseball. Because of Snell’s contract, they come out roughly even on surplus value as well, depending on what you think of Patiño (Eric Longenhagen analyzed that part of the deal here).

And from their perspective, the Rays won this trade. Whatever you think of their long-term strategy, executing trades like this is a key way to keep it going. The Rays didn’t get to where they are by keeping the Blake Snells of the world, and they won’t suddenly change plans overnight. Patiño might pan out, and he might not, but turning a generically good situation — a Cy Young winner on a $13 million a year contract — into the kind of team-control gold necessary to compete is the only way to keep the ship afloat when this is how you choose to steer it.

Someday, we can debate the healthiness of the Rays’ system. For now, though, let’s leave it at this: San Diego and Tampa Bay both accomplished something they badly wanted to do in yesterday’s trade. As Jeffrey Paternostro so eloquently put it, it’s okay to hold two separate ideas in our heads at once.

Both sides are going to walk away happy from this deal happy with what they accomplished. Viewed from the extremely narrow perspective of how to maximize long-term wins under financial duress, the Rays got what they wanted here. The Padres, on the other hand, got what everyone wants — several years of a great pitcher. Which of those two should be the objective of a competitive baseball team? I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago

At this point Tampa’s dilemma is obvious — a small fan base leaves them without the money to retain even one or two good “face of the franchise” players, and the lack of spending makes it almost impossible to grow the fan base.

Maybe Nashville shouldn’t wait for MLB to get around to expansion.

3 years ago
Reply to  Alby

Ownership says the stadium, in particular the stadium location (St Pete, too far for many people), is a big part of the problem, and they want help paying for a stadium in Tampa. Normally I’d hate to parrot whatever self-interested thing ownership is saying, but I’ve heard several journalists agree with that. I wonder if they’d suck/cheap out less if they had a better stadium location.