Rays Go Full Rays, Trade Austin Meadows to Tigers for Future Considerations

In a normal baseball offseason, all the trades would have already happened. Front offices have all season to call each other up with a million permutations of deals, and the deals they make spawn other deals, and player injuries spawn other deals, and free-agent signings lead to surpluses or needs, and… well, you get the idea. Trading flurries happen in December, and during spring training, and teams work out their rosters that way.

With a compressed offseason thanks to the lockout, the timeline has gotten all mixed up. Now, trades are happening three days before opening day. It’s madness! And speaking of:

Tigers Get

Rays Get

This trade was announced last night, and I’m writing about it this morning, and so rather than write a block of text about one side’s return and then a block of text about the other, I’m going to try a slightly different framing tool: I’ll walk you through a few levels of how I’ve thought about this deal. It’s an interesting one, no doubt, as trades involving the Rays so often are. Let’s get started!

Level One: The All-Star Store

Wait, the Rays are just handing out All-Stars? You can just give them draft picks and minor leaguers and they’ll send you honest-to-god All-Stars? The Tigers should do this trade every day of the week, twice on Sunday, and then once more to ensure a full nine-Meadows lineup.

Do you know who the Tigers were planning on giving plate appearances to before they acquired Meadows? I’m not sure the Tigers do, because the situation on the ground changed seismically in the last week. This trade didn’t happen last Friday, because last Thursday the plan was to play Akil Baddoo in left field and hand center to top prospect Riley Greene. Greene is a dynamo, someone we project to be a star right away, but he fouled a ball off of himself in a game last Friday and fractured his foot. He’ll be out for six to eight weeks and require a rehab assignment when he returns.

Good news! Baddoo can play center. Bad news! That meant Derek Hill and catcher Eric Haase would be handling left. Worse news! Hill is also injured. Would you rather play a backup catcher or Meadows in left field? It’s not rocket science, with all due respect to Haase. Seriously, ask Eric Haase; he’d probably tell you to play Meadows.

To upgrade left field from replacementville to Meadows, the Tigers gave up a middling draft pick and a prospect they seem to have lost faith in. Paredes continues to do nothing but get on base in the minors; he compiled an aggregate .260/.394/.450 line mainly in Triple-A last year. He’s been lackluster in 172 career major league plate appearances, though, and some scouts wonder if he has an everyday defensive home. Projection systems love him — Depth Charts has him down for 3.2 WAR per 600 plate appearances — but the Tigers looked likely to stash him in the minors.

When Greene returns, no problem; the Tigers can start playing musical chairs. Meadows is a better outfielder than right fielder Robbie Grossman, so he can shift there or play DH. If he plays right, Grossman would DH, so either option would crimp Miguel Cabrera’s playing time, but between rest days for everyone, giving Meadows the day off against tough lefties, and the fact that you don’t really need to give Cabrera the 525 plate appearances we project him for, I think everything would work out.

A prospect you don’t like very much anymore and a pick the league just gave you for free in excess of your regular allotment of draft picks? Seems like an easy choice. The Tigers got better for more or less free, with the Rays enabling them.

Level Two: Wait, Tampa Bay Is Smart

The Rays are no dummies. When they make a trade, they’re doing it for a deliberate reason, and this is no exception. Start by looking at Meadows, who’s a strange fit for the Tampa Bay machine. The organization loves multi-positional hitters with defensive value; he’s a marginal corner outfielder or DH. If you can’t shift around like that, the Rays would prefer you’re an everyday bat, but that’s not really Meadows. If you regress his platoon splits to the mean based on his career line (using 1,000 PA of average splits as ballast) and take his 2022 projections into account, you’d project him to be a 103 wRC+ hitter against left-handed pitching this year.

An average hitter with his defense isn’t someone the Rays would love to play. Sure, it’s a nice stopgap, but that’s not particularly far from replacement level. Getting a righty in there would probably work out similarly, even if that righty were Harold Ramirez. Against righties, Meadows is a battlecruiser that can anchor your lineup. But speaking of lefty battlecruisers, the Rays promoted Josh Lowe, the team’s top outfield prospect and a lefty power bat, to replace Meadows.

Lowe isn’t a one-for-one replacement for Meadows, but he kind of is. It would likely be hard to roster both; Lowe might be listed as a center fielder, but he’s better suited for a corner, which is where he’ll play for now, and you wouldn’t be excited about giving either of them much playing time against lefties. He likely won’t hit as well as Meadows, but he’ll provide more value defensively. I’m not convinced that the Rays will be worse off in the outfield over the next three years with Lowe instead of Meadows, before even considering the trade return.

Meadows is, as I mentioned repeatedly in the first section, an All-Star, but he’s also been worth 1.8 WAR in the last two seasons combined, with a 108 wRC+ over 743 plate appearances. He had a ludicrous 2019, but I wouldn’t fault you for worrying that he’s the kind of hitter who is disproportionately hurt by losing the ultra-lively ball from that year. Since his 33-homer, 144 wRC+ breakout, he’s continued to walk and strike out at the same clip. The problem? His BABIP cratered from .331 to .256 and his power output declined from a .268 ISO to .212.

On the BABIP front, .331 never made much sense. He’s an average-speed, fly-ball hitter, and he pulls more grounders than the average lefty. I think he’ll likely rebound somewhat, and so do our projections, but a sub-.300 mark is a reasonable estimate. That cuts down on his on-base percentage; the .364 mark he posted in 2019 is likely to be his career high.

On the power front, Meadows has never been Stantonesque; his home run output comes from getting the ball in the air. He has a below-average hard-hit rate, and while he’s capable of plus power, that’s not his calling card. “Get the ball in the air” is still a perfectly serviceable plan, but it’s a lot worse in 2022 than it was in 2019, and even though Meadows looks more slugger-ish than Alex Bregman and Anthony Rendon, his batted ball profile is shockingly similar (albeit from the other side of the plate).

Meanwhile, Paredes felt like a Ray even before joining the Rays. He can play a few infield positions, though none particularly well. He has excellent bat-to-ball skills and good pitch recognition; he’s a near-lock to strike out less than average and walk more than average at the major league level. Power has been his main offensive shortcoming, but in his first Triple-A season (where they use the livelier major league baseball), he posted solid power numbers. He might not ever hit 30 homers in a season, but he elevates, walks, and doesn’t strike out much; his projected .341 OBP gives him plenty of room on the power front.

What about the draft pick? Craig Edwards estimated draft pick values in 2019 and came up with a $3.8 million valuation. In prospect terms, that’s akin to a 45 FV pitcher or 40+ FV hitter, again per Craig’s research. Allowing for some fuzziness around those numbers, it’s a meaningful but not headlining addition to the trade.

In fact, the most meaningful non-Paredes “addition” given the way that Tampa Bay operates is likely not having to pay Meadows. He’ll receive $4 million in arbitration this year, and a reasonable estimate of his future years would see $15–25 million in outlays over the next two years. That’s small change for most major league teams, but the Rays operate under extreme self-imposed budget constraints. Lowe and $4 million is pretty nice compared to Meadows; that will balloon to Lowe and $7 million next year. You don’t have to like the way the Rays operate, but under their constraints, that’s a pretty big deal.

Level Three: Acceptance

I started out thinking this trade was a layup for the Tigers. I pretty quickly decided it was a layup for the Rays; I know our prospect rankings don’t reflect it, but I think Paredes is a more valuable player than Meadows straight up. But in the end, as I’m wont to do, I understand the Tigers’ motivation in making the trade, even if I think they gave up more than is optimal.

The Tigers badly needed an outfield bat to start the season. Remember, they were going to play a backup catcher out there. It’s too late to patch the hole in free agency; it’s just too close to the season, and even if they signed Michael Conforto today, it’s not like he would be ready to slot into the lineup on Thursday. Because the need is so acute now, waiting for someone to get in playing shape doesn’t make much sense if the team is trying to make the playoffs, and the Tigers think they’re going to make the playoffs, projections notwithstanding.

If I jam surplus value numbers onto a rough extrapolation of our Depth Charts projections and a $7 million/$10 million projected arbitration payout based on his 2022 salary and counting statistics, the Tigers are paying $21 million for Meadows’ next three years — production they’d have to pay roughly $50 million for on the free-agent market. Hey! With $30 million here and $30 million there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.

On the other hand, they probably could have gotten more than that out of Paredes. He still hasn’t reached arbitration and won’t until after the 2023 season, assuming everyday playing time. He’s still only 23! Let’s say he’s half as valuable by WAR as Meadows over the next three years due to a combination of lower rate stats and less playing time. That’s $25 million on the free-agent market, by definition, and they’d pay him roughly $3.5 million for the privilege. It’s pretty close to the same value, and again, our projections have Paredes better today. He’d even have two years of arbitration left over afterward. From a salary/team control perspective, this is a pretty big outlay.

Yes, the Tigers filled a long-term need (lefty DH/outfield power bat). Yes, they did it with a cost-controlled player that will hopefully allow them to splash out in free agency. But they gave up a similarly-exciting player to do it, and a younger one to boot. The only reason they shouldn’t keep Paredes and sign someone like Conforto on the open market to fill that long-term need is if they really care about production in the first two months this year.

Again, they do. They think they’re going to make the playoffs this year! But I kind of hate this trade for the Tigers in the end. It’s not because it doesn’t fit their plan; it absolutely does, and if you assign huge importance to making the playoffs this year, sometimes you have to go out and get Meadows. But I don’t think the Tigers are really in that phase of contention yet. They have some awesome stars, but there are still enough holes that sacrificing future value to bolster the next few months feels rash.

Maybe Paredes won’t pan out. Maybe the draft pick will amount to nothing. Maybe Meadows will return to his world-destroying form of 2019. But probably, the Rays are quietly going to win this one, and Paredes will be an above-average regular just like Meadows, only with a lower salary and more team control. That’s how the Rays operate. That’s how they always operate. It will require more moves, because their infield is as obnoxiously crowded as ever, but they’ll probably make it work. So that’s my final level; the Tigers behaved logically in pursuit of a goal I consider illogical, the Rays did their normal Rays thing, and I fully expect to be writing about the Chris Archer trade tree for years to come.





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

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tz
5 months ago

I know I’m in the minority, but I’d actually like this deal a lot for the Rays if they were on the cusp of trading Taylor Walls for comparable value (if only the Angels had a good match here). Paredes will hit, crappy small MLB sample aside, and Meadows is a poor salary fit for the Rays and their philosophy right now, which trading partners know. So this is a decent return for the Rays all things considered.

wily momember
5 months ago
Reply to  tz

three way deal: angels get taylor walls, orioles get tyler wade, rays get tyler wells. nobody will even realize what happened for at least a few days

John Elway
5 months ago
Reply to  wily mo

LMHAO!!!!!

wily momember
5 months ago
Reply to  wily mo

this is absolutely true: i just realized, two weeks later, that i said tyler wade here when i actually meant taylor ward

RonnieDobbs
5 months ago
Reply to  tz

This deal fits with the TB model of minimizing costs. Bad for baseball, good for shareholders.

deaconblueray
5 months ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

Ronnie, I have absolutely no idea why this trade would be bad for baseball. Austin Meadows was 100% NOT “the face of the Rays” — that would be Wander Franco, who they just signed to an 11-year contract. Was the Renfro trade, by Boston, bad for baseball?

Dmjn53
5 months ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

that’s a little too simplistic though. There’s a pretty good argument that Paredes is the best player in the deal regardless of salary.