For some time, the Rays have approached prospect valuation similarly to other small market clubs like Pittsburgh. The short version is that Tampa has valued their prospects more highly than almost any other club because their small payroll means cheap contributors are worth more because they have the least to spend. In recent years, they have also led the farm system rankings and had among the deepest 40-man rosters, causing them to trade valuable prospects like Nick Solak and
Jesús Sánchez due to these two pressures. This dynamic was also clearly at work in last week’s Matthew Liberatore trade.
Adding cheap, controllable major league talent to one of the best teams in baseball is key to the Rays both being better when their present competitive window is open and allowing the team to keep players who they’ve helped improve and create value, thus avoiding the same fate as they did with Avisaíl García. García signed a one-year make-good deal for 2019 for $3.5 million guaranteed; he then made good and got $20 million from the Brewers.
Liberatore is among the top 100 prospects in baseball and one of a dozen or so pitching prospects with frontline potential, but he was also a 19 year old in Low-A in 2019. He’s made expendable by a deep farm system and his distance from the big leagues. By trading him, the Rays got short-term upside back in a cost-controlled José Martínez and the six or seven years of imminent major league contributions from Randy Arozarena, in addition to the added value from the draft pick swap ahead of one of the deepest draft classes in years.
The Rays proactively cut fringe players from the 40-man during the season to give themselves the margin for error to add when the time comes without worrying that they’ll lose value by clearing roster space, since their 40th player is better than almost everyone else’s. The trade with the Cardinals was unique in that Tampa Bay added two 40-man players while trading two prospects, spending some of the 40-man breathing room they’d been hoarding the last few years.
Before officially adding Martínez and Arozarena to the 40-man roster, Tampa Bay jettisoned back-of-the-40-man right-handed pitcher Austin Pruitt to Houston for fringe prospects Cal Stevenson, a 35+ FV center fielder due to speed and on-base skills with two seasons until he needs to be added to the 40-man roster, and Peyton Battenfield, a recent ninth rounder with a low-90s fastball that plays average in relief and who is three seasons from a 40-man decision. And just like that, the Rays are back at a lean and mean, full 40-man.
If Martínez dramatically improves, his arb salary could jump enough that he then becomes expendable, but he’ll draw a decent return if that happens, similar to Steven Souza’s trade to Arizona. It’s a complicated dance to service the short-, middle- and long-term needs of the roster with a small margin for error in terms of payroll and 40-man spots. It often looks confounding from a distance, but the Rays are one of the best at the dance.
Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.