Rays, Padres Act to Type in Tommy Pham Trade

It’s a day ending in “Y,” so the San Diego Padres have made another trade involving talented outfielders. This time, it’s a big one: Tommy Pham and Jake Cronenworth will be playing in San Diego next year, with Hunter Renfroe, Xavier Edwards, and reportedly another prospect going to the Rays in exchange.

There’s a lot to unpack in this trade, so let’s take it in sections. First: what are the Rays doing? One option, as always, is that they’re one step ahead of the competition. Trading with the Rays is hazardous for executives’ health. They’re liable to turn a pile of straw into a 3-WAR outfielder, and get you to chip in Shane Baz while you’re at it.

Pham himself was one of these trades a little over a year ago. The Rays traded a shiny marble, two bright red shoelaces, Genesis Cabrera, Justin Williams, and Roel Ramirez to the Cardinals for Pham at the 2018 trade deadline. Pham promptly caught fire, batting .343/.448/.622 through the rest of 2018 before adding a 121 wRC+ 2019. His 3.3 WAR might look low for that offensive line, but it’s largely due to 92 plate appearances at designated hitter, which lowered his defensive value (though Statcast didn’t like his outfield defense in 2019).

When the Rays trade a 31-year-old outfielder for a 27-year-old outfielder, it’s easy to read it as them simply trying to outmaneuver the Padres. But there’s one major complication: salary. Pham is in his second year of arbitration, and he won his case against the Rays last year, securing a $4.1 million salary for 2019. MLB Trade Rumors projects him for $8.6 million in arbitration this year, which would have made him the third-highest-paid Ray, behind only Charlie Morton and Kevin Kiermaier.

You know how teams now try to avoid paying for talent in free agency? The Rays avoid paying for talent in arbitration. They kept Mike Zunino (for $4.5 million), and Chaz Roe will likely be back next year (he’s in his second year of arbitration), but the team simply doesn’t keep many players all the way through their arbitration years. They trade or extend them, and Pham doesn’t seem the type to sign away any upside — he didn’t settle last year in arbitration, after all.

For the Padres, this trade further clears up their outfield picture. Pham and Trent Grisham are the presumptive starters at the corners, with some combination of Franchy Cordero and Manuel Margot covering center. Grisham and Pham are both speedy for outfield corners, and can fill in in center in a pinch, with Josh Naylor or Francisco Mejia replacing them, turning an excellent defensive outfield with okay hitting into a poor defensive outfield with good hitting.

Of course, much of this outfield stability depends on Pham. He immediately slots in at the top of the lineup, likely batting second behind Fernando Tatis Jr. Over the last three years, he’s been an absolutely premium hitter; top 20 in baseball in WAR and OBP, and 26th in wRC+. A lot of that is driven by his superlative 2017, but even in 2019, he was a key part of a solid Rays lineup.

While his power slumped in 2019, his plate discipline picked up a lot of the slack. Pham has always been a disciplined hitter, but he took that to a new level last year, with a career-low 7.3% swinging strike rate and a 20% chase rate, second-lowest in baseball behind only Alex Bregman. In fact, his decision-making and contact at the plate was positively Troutian in 2019.

There’s risk to Pham. Next year is his age-32 season, and a chunk of his value comes from speed — he’s always been a groundball, high-BABIP guy with enough speed to make it work. While his sprint speed has stayed constant through his major league career, potentially due to his aggressive offseason training, time remains undefeated. A step here or there could be costly for him, and while the walks make up for that at the moment, the Astros attacked Pham in the strike zone during the playoffs and dared him to beat them, a blueprint more teams might adopt in 2020.

But if Pham has some risk, Renfroe is another level entirely. He bounced around the periphery of the San Diego roster in 2017 and 2018, with enough power to be interesting but enough swing-and-miss to be worrisome. 2019 was more of the same — he accomplished the dubious double of swinging at balls more often than league average while swinging at strikes less often than average on his way to a 98 wRC+.

His power hasn’t yet been enough to make up for the strikeouts — it’s more “hey that’s pretty good” power than Joey Gallo bolts of lightning. In fact, he produced worse expected results on contact than Pham in 2017 and 2018, and only barely bested him in 2019. The Rays have done well with other teams’ cast-off hitters of late, but there’s less major league track record here than Ji-Man Choi, or even Jesus Aguilar.

If Renfroe is going to be a huge asset for the Rays, it’s going to involve defense. Before last year, that would have been an outlandish statement; his speed and routes looked roughly average in right, with the main attraction being a huge throwing arm. In 2019, however, both UZR and DRS saw him even with Mookie Betts as the best defensive right fielder in baseball. That sounds crazy, and it is: Betts is a center fielder playing right in an incredibly difficult outfield, while Renfroe is a slow runner who has never stolen more than five bases.

Expecting him to replicate his strong season on defense is foolish. But there really does seem to be something there: Statcast agrees his glovework was notably better in 2019, and his first step is a real asset, making him excellent on short reaction time plays. If he can maintain half his defensive gains while slightly reining in his strikeouts, he could be a useful player for the Rays this year, though as it’s his first arbitration year, they might be looking to move him again next year.

For Tampa, Xavier Edwards is the reason for the trade. Edwards, who played nearly all of last season at 19 years old, gives off a Dee Gordon vibe, both at the plate and on the basepaths. He’s an 80 runner, though Kiley and Eric think his middling arm strength and action make him a better fit for second base or center field than shortstop. His speed turns a good amount of his slash/flare contact into extra bases; he had 18 doubles and eight triples across two levels last year.

The bat control is superlative too; he had a 4% swinging strike rate and walked nearly as much as he struck out. The worrisome part of his profile is his power, and it’s a real worry. Again, he was 19 almost all of last year, but his average exit velocity in 2019 was 83.5 mph, and only 13% of his batted balls left his bat at more than 95 mph. That’s not quite Billy Hamilton territory, but think Magneuris Sierra or David Fletcher. His contact skills far outstrip Sierra, and his overall game provides plenty of cushion relative to Fletcher, but power will certainly be a concern going forward.

The Rays system is crowded with infielders; even ignoring Wander Franco, Vidal Brujan and Lucius Fox looked excellent in 2019, and the big league club has Brandon Lowe, Willy Adames, Daniel Robertson, and even Joey Wendle in the picture somewhere. But Edwards is young enough, and the Rays are cost-conscious enough, that he might be a generation behind them in the majors, and there’s always center field, where Kiermaier is slowing down at the plate.

The prospect team graded Edwards as a 50 FV last year, and they’ll likely leave him there in the 2020 update. That puts him in the 5-10 range of an excellent farm, further bolstering what is already the best system in the game. He also doesn’t need 40-man roster protection until 2022, which helps allay the Rays’ roster crunch.

Cronenworth, the second part of the Padres’ return, bears more explanation. He’s a 25-year old shortstop with enough glove to stick there, with the arm and fielding motions to handle any position across the infield in at least a utility role. His real appeal is with the bat, where he took a huge step forward in 2019.

The International League notably switched to major league baseballs last year, and Cronenworth took advantage. He hit .334/.429/.520, walking 12% of the time while only striking out 15.3%, on the way to arguably his best offensive season at the highest level of competition he’s ever faced. His 10 home runs more than doubled his previous single-season total, and his exit velocity numbers would look at home in the majors; an 89 mph average, with 39% of his contact 95 mph or higher.

If this newfound power is going to stick, it will likely come with a lower BABIP and more fly balls — his 1.72 GB/FB ratio limits the amount of damage he can do in the air. Even if he doesn’t hold all of his power gains, the bat control and plate approach give him a nice floor, and he fields and runs enough to make the total package work.

Oh yeah, he also pitches. He’s not a “real” pitching prospect, but he was a two-way player in college and threw 7 innings in 2019, pairing a low-90s fastball with a usable slider. Eric doesn’t see him as more than an excellent position player pitcher, but still, that’s a bit of extra value, and is also extremely cool.

Put it all together, and Cronenworth looks like a big-league ready utility piece. Eric and Kiley haven’t put together a grade for 2020 for him yet, but they expect him to land in the 40/45 range, with Luis Rengifo as a comp. This isn’t some throw-in from the Rays; Cronenworth will be ready to contribute for San Diego right away if needed.

Some trades are straightforward. Chris Archer for every prospect in Pittsburgh never looked like an even swap, for example. This one is much more complicated. The Padres upgraded their outfield while trading a prospect who is a few years away for one who can contribute at a lower level today. They also shortened their window slightly; the Rays might look to move Renfroe rather than pay him in 2021, but the Padres could have kept him until 2022. Pham is significantly better right now though, enough so that this is a clear win for them at the major league level.

In terms of the prospects exchanged, I’m partial to the Jake Cronenworth mold of player and skittish around Edwards types, though I am in the minority. Edwards has the chance to be a star; he has the superlative athleticism and bat control to make his game work without power, and his ceiling if he adds exit velocity is huge. That’s a big if, however, and speed-and-singles infielders don’t tend to move the needle for me. Cronenworth isn’t as good of a prospect as Edwards, no doubt, but he’s helpful today, and there isn’t much concern about someone with his Triple-A stat line translating to the majors.

If you came here for a definitive winner, you’re out of luck, especially before we know the confirmed final pieces. I generally like the Rays’ side of trades; they have a good track record cutting bait with their own prospects and targeting undervalued bats. But in this situation, I think the 40-man roster and arbitration salary concerns painted them into a corner. The Padres made themselves a lot better in 2020 with this trade, and while they had to spend a solid prospect to do it, they got someone almost as interesting back. Not every trade needs to have a winner and a loser — but if forced to choose sides, I suppose I’d take the Padres in this one.

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

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2 years ago

Rays are also getting an unnamed 2nd prospect