Over the weekend, the presumptive second-best team in the AL East sent a key contributor from a recent playoff run to sunny California. In exchange, they received a package including a major league outfielder and a minor league catcher. That’s right — Emilio Pagán is headed to San Diego. As Josh Tolentino first reported, the Rays traded Pagán to the Padres in exchange for Manuel Margot and catching prospect Logan Driscoll.
At first glance, this trade seems pretty straightforward. Pagán was the most valuable pitcher in one of the best bullpens in baseball last year. His fastball/slider combination overwhelmed batters to the tune of a 36% strikeout rate and only a 4.9% walk rate. With Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, José Alvarado, and a host of others ready to pick up the slack, however, he was surplus, and as noted last week, the Rays lacked a right-handed platoon partner to play center alongside Kevin Kiermaier.
Enter Margot, or exit Margot from San Diego’s perspective. Over three seasons as the team’s regular center fielder, he provided spectacular defense and forgettable offense. Per Statcast’s OAA, he’s been the eighth-best defensive outfielder in baseball since the beginning of 2017. His batting line of .248/.301/.394, on the other hand, works out to an 85 wRC+, a cool 207th among qualifying players. The whole package came out to 4.1 WAR over those years, and while that’s a valuable contribution, it’s a fourth outfielder’s line overall, even with the shiny defense.
A backup outfielder for a closer? And both of them pre-arb? We’re going to need to see the last player in this deal to make better sense of it. Per Eric Longenhagen, Driscoll is still something of an enigma. He’s a plus athlete for catcher, and Eric likes the athleticism and physicality most in his profile. That said, he’s extremely raw for a college player. He was often late against good velocity, potentially a symptom of having faced only mediocre pitching in his college career (he went to George Mason, which plays in the Altantic 10).
It’s fair to say that the middling vibe scouts got from watching Driscoll in professional ball this year is still only speculative. Catchers often wear down before the end of the season in the minors, particularly when they’ve been playing since February (!) in the college season. That said, Eric’s looks at Driscoll weren’t overly flattering. He’s still a 35+ FV prospect in our rankings, and he’ll come in near the bottom of the Rays list.
That’s not to say that there isn’t potential there — his athleticism really is a cut above for a catcher, and even in his worn-down state, he did an excellent job making contact. But this isn’t a premium piece, more a throw-in who might have some traits the Rays value. Take a gander at some game footage, again courtesy of Eric:
With the players outlined, let’s talk about what each team gets out of the deal. From Tampa Bay’s side, this trade seems to make plenty of sense. If you assume that Randy Arozarena is starting in the minors, they’re in a pickle; they have an embarrassment of righty-hitting corner outfield types and no one to cover center. Kiermaier projects as essentially a league-average hitter against right-handed pitching. After accounting for his defense, that’s a valuable player. On the other hand, he projects like 2019 Yolmer Sánchez’s overall line against lefties, and if you don’t know what 2019 Yolmer Sanchez was like, his .252/.318/.321 line should clear up any doubt.
Arozarena could have covered that hole, but scouts don’t see him as a premium glove in center. Additionally, the Rays have typically held players with his eligibility situation in the minors for enough of the season to avoid a full year of service time. Margot provides Kiermaier-level defense, and he projects as a league-average bat against lefties. Over 600 perfectly platooned plate appearances, that works out to something like a 3.5 WAR player, far outstripping what either could do on their own.
For that upgrade, as well as a lottery ticket in Driscoll, the Rays paid a high price. Pagán was an anchor in their bullpen last year. He threw the most innings, compiled the lowest ERA other than mythical strikeout monster Nick Anderson, and recorded the most saves. The bullpen is almost comically deep — even without Pagán, we project them for nine relievers with 30 innings pitched and an ERA better than league average — but c’mon, he threw 70 innings with a 2.31 ERA and 3.30 FIP. That has to be a big loss, right?
Well, yeah, it is. But I’m not sure that he’ll replicate his success in 2020, and I can understand the Rays’ skepticism. For one thing, there are the popups. He generated 11 infield fly balls in 2019, good for 16.4% of the fly balls he allowed. That skill doesn’t appear to persist, however, and that’s unfortunate for Pagán, an extreme fly ball pitcher. Let’s put it this way: in 2019, he had the lowest xwOBA allowed of any pitcher. In other words, if you look at the angle and speed of the batted balls he allowed and add in the strikeouts and walks, he gave up the lowest expected-value results.
But if you don’t think the popups will repeat, it’s not quite as impressive a feat. Pagán allowed the 19th-lowest xwOBA on contact of any pitcher in the majors, but those popups were a huge part of it. If you look instead at the percentage of his batted balls that were barreled up (in essence, likely to go for extra bases), he finished in the middle of the pack, in the 64th percentile (higher being better for the pitcher) among all major league pitchers. The popouts, which we think are random, were the key contributor to his excellent overall expected numbers.
It’s also fair to be skeptical about the strikeouts and walks. His 31.1 K-BB% was the seventh-best among all relievers last year. Strikeouts and walks are much stickier than those ever-treacherous popups. And yet, I’m not completely sold. Two measly years ago, he was a surplus reliever on the A’s. He struck out 24.1% of the batters he faced, walked 7.3%, and was roughly replacement level overall.
What changed on the Rays? First, he added velocity to his fastball, going from 93.8 mph on average to 95.5. He threw his slider more often, though not overwhelmingly so. And he also put a little more mustard on the slider (some outlets call it a cutter), throwing it 87-88 mph, as compared to 85 the previous year.
The extra velocity kicked his swinging strike rate into overdrive. Batters swung much more often at the slider, both in and out of the zone. And while the pitch didn’t get better at missing bats, it was already acceptable in that department, so more swings meant more whiffs and more strikeouts.
His fastball didn’t generate more swings, but it did generate worse swings. Batters came up empty on 35% of their hacks against it, the sixth-best rate in baseball. That fastball drove everything; he used it to get ahead of batters, used it to get back into counts when behind, and even threw it 60% of the time with two strikes to get a strikeout. Rather than throw a changeup, a pitch he’d previously used against lefties, he merely leaned into the fastball even more, throwing it a full 75% of the time against them.
But while the fastball was excellent, it’s still speculative to call it one of the best pitches in baseball. From a pure stuff standpoint, it’s a good-but-mixed bag. It resembles Roberto Osuna’s fastball, and that’s great. But it’s also a doppelganger of the fastballs of Chad Sobotka, John Brebbia, and Wilmer Font. Brebbia has been a nice pitcher in the majors, but that’s decidedly worse company overall.
The overall package, of course, still plays. Hard, rising fastballs are in vogue for a reason, and Pagán fits that trope exactly. Steamer, which cares about pitch velocity but moreso about past performance, thinks he’ll be good again this year, to the tune of a 3.51 ERA. That’s good for the 30th-best among all relievers, although behind three Rays relievers — their bullpen is pretty good!
Of course, what matters to the Padres is where he’ll slot into their bullpen, and there he projects as the third-best reliever behind Kirby Yates and Drew Pomeranz. He’ll be a useful piece, and a valuable bookend to Pomeranz, as they can split setup duties based on the handedness of the opposition. As a completely useless aside, they both bat opposite-handed, so they could actually form an incredibly bad hitting platoon as well!
The Padres got a valuable reliever. He’ll absorb some of the innings that might have been thrown by the back of the pen — Trey Wingenter, David Bednar, and Javy Guerra aren’t the kind of names you’re dying to give innings to, and now San Diego won’t have to. We now project the Padres as tied with the Yankees for the best in baseball, a scant 0.1 WAR ahead of the Rays.
But giving up Margot isn’t free. The Rays have created a valuable platoon, but the Padres blew one up. Franchy Cordero is now the team’s everyday center fielder, and while he’s a perpetual breakout candidate due to his loud tools, he also sports a career 38.8% strikeout rate. Trent Grisham, the only other player on the team who looks like a true center fielder, is also left-handed. That means that when Cordero sits, the team will rotate Grisham into center and play Wil Myers in right. It works out to a Cordero/Myers platoon with more steps.
That’s not the end of the world. Myers is an acceptable hitter despite not reaching the peak we projected for him as a prospect, and if he gets a lot of his reps with a platoon advantage, his game will play up. If the team thinks Grisham can handle center, Margot was blocking one of Grisham or Myers against left-handed pitching. Their 2020 outfield production shouldn’t take much of a hit with this trade.
What the Padres are really giving up is upside. The Margot who we’ve seen for the last three seasons isn’t a superstar. The tools are there, though, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him finally put it together. Margot with a better bat looks a lot like Lorenzo Cain or peak Kiermaier, and while that’s not the most likely case by any stretch of the imagination, it’s not out of the question.
The Padres made the type of trade that contenders make. They sacrificed upside and cost control (Margot is earning $2.5 million this year in arbitration, and glove-first outfielders haven’t traditionally fared well in the process) for the here and now of a better bullpen. Pagán might not be good in a few years — relievers are notoriously volatile — but he’s good right now. Margot might be great in a few years, but he’s expendable right now. The Padres are likely to be better this year, after making this trade, than they were beforehand, and they didn’t pay an onerous price for the upgrade.
The Rays made the kind of trade that the Rays make. They picked an asset they considered overvalued, a reliever coming off of a career year (though with great underlying numbers), and sent him out before he got expensive. They’re probably just as good this year after making this trade, assuming they were going to goof around with Arozarena’s service time either way. They have a Kiermaier replacement, albeit opposite-handed, for the future. If Margot breaks out, great. But even if not, his skills are stable — he’s unlikely to stop being so dang fast anytime soon, and as long as they can platoon him, his bat won’t be a huge liability.
I understand where both teams are coming from on this trade. But for me, the Rays side makes more sense. They’ve made upgrades for the future without sacrificing the present. They got a catching prospect who increases their chances of developing in-house talent. And if things go really well with Margot, they’ve even added payroll flexibility, as a fully actualized Margot would allow them to trade Kiermaier, whose $10 million salary is a bargain overall and also the second-highest outlay on the entire Tampa Bay team.
The Padres are acting like a contender, but I’d like to see them take a little more risk. Margot is a volatile player, with huge error bars on his true talent level. The cost of the one-ish extra wins Pagán will add this year is the chance to play Cordero and Margot and hope one of them develops into a star. There are other ways they can win this trade, of course: Pagán could remain great for years to come while Margot flames out and Driscoll never makes it. For a team looking up at the Dodgers and even likely the Diamondbacks, however, I’d like to see a bit more risk-taking and a bit less incremental addition. The Padres desperately need breakout stars to buoy them to the next level of contention. With this trade, however, they’re acting more like a finished product. It might not sting them, but I’m not in love with the theory behind it.
This article has been updated to correct Manuel Margot’s arbitration status.
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.