Rays Trade for Older Christian Yelich

At 53-53, the Rays aren’t bad, but they’re also not anywhere close to the race. At 54-52, the Cardinals aren’t much better, but a wild-card slot remains within reach. Given that, you’d think, if anything, the Cardinals would be improving, while the Rays would be selling. Instead, we have a trade that goes in the other direction. It’s a little bit of a surprising deadline maneuver, yet the Rays are gearing up for a run next season. And the Cardinals are just making more room for Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill. I’ll give you the specifics:

Rays get:

  • Tommy Pham
  • $500,000 international bonus-pool money

Cardinals get:

On the surface, you can understand the Cardinals’ perspective here. Pham is 30 years old, and his numbers don’t look like they did last season. Pham and the organization haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, and besides, Bader looks like one of the better defensive outfielders in either league, so it makes sense to play him more often. I can see why they might’ve wanted to make a trade. Still, it feels like they’ve sold Pham low. The Rays are getting a possible difference-maker here, and you don’t have to dig too far into the numbers to see it.

Pham is 30, yes. He’s 30, and from last year to this year, his wRC+has dropped from 148 to 101. On the other hand, he’s got three years of arbitration eligibility ahead of him. He runs very well, and for any concerns regarding his durability, over the past year and a half he’s played in 93% of all possible games. Pham is also found around the top of the exit-velocity leaderboards. That leads us into some Statcast-based analysis. There’s how Pham has done by the actual numbers, and there’s how Pham should have done by the expected numbers.

The following table is pulled from Baseball Savant. On the left, you see Pham’s actual wOBAs. On the right, you see his expected wOBAs, based on the batted balls he hit. The last column shows the differences.

Tommy Pham, MLB
Year wOBA xwOBA Difference
2015 0.352 0.352 0.000
2016 0.330 0.329 0.001
2017 0.398 0.375 0.023
2018 0.319 0.369 -0.050
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Pham’s actual box-score results have gotten considerably worse. That’s a significant and troubling wOBA drop. But then, looking at expected wOBA, Pham is…basically…the same. That’s just comparing 2017 and 2018, when Pham has been a regular player. Last year, Pham slightly overachieved. This year, the opposite has happened, and Pham has one of the bigger negative differences in baseball. It’s not as if you could blame his speed — again, he’s pretty fast — and while expected wOBA is still something of an experimental statistic, you can just consider some examples from 2017. Through this date a year ago, righties like Manny Machado, Khris Davis, and Nicholas Castellanos were significantly undershooting their expected wOBA marks. Over the final two months, they all showed positive regression. The Rays are believers in how hard Pham hits the ball.

Just for fun, I put together everyone’s 2018 exit velocities, launch angles, chase rates, and contact rates. I wanted to see if there were any good Pham comparisons around. He doesn’t chase very much, and he hits the ball hard, but he also hits the ball low. When I ran the math, the closest Pham comp I found was Christian Yelich. He was followed by Miguel Cabrera, Matt Chapman, and Juan Soto. Let’s take a look at that Yelich thing. Yelich, of course, is a lefty, while Pham is a righty. And while Pham is 30, Yelich is 26. Every team would rather have Yelich on the roster. Still, here’s a table of information stretching back to the start of 2017:

A 2017 – 2018 Comparison
Player PA wRC+ BB% K% BsR fWAR bWAR GB% Contact% EV xwOBA
Christian Yelich 1100 125 10% 21% 12 7.9 7.5 56% 79% 91 0.365
Tommy Pham 926 128 12% 23% 8 7.6 7.0 52% 79% 91 0.373

Pham and Yelich almost couldn’t look more alike. Handedness and age aside, these lines are almost identical, and both these guys have played a lot of center field. They have almost equivalent sprint speeds. A common complaint about Yelich has been that he hits too many grounders, but that hasn’t held him back from being productive. He was the centerpiece of a major offseason blockbuster. As you see in there, whether you go by FanGraphs’ WAR or Baseball Reference’s WAR, Pham and Yelich have been similarly valuable. I’m certain the Rays have something like this in mind. Pham is either an older Yelich, or a poor man’s Yelich. I lean toward the former. If you believe Pham’s a better hitter than his current wRC+, the Rays just picked up one of the best players on their roster, and he’s controlled for another three years.

Because of Pham’s age, no one should expect him to pick up new skills. He won’t be asked to play center with Tampa — that’s Kevin Kiermaier’s job. Pham should be just fine in a corner, and with him batting around the middle of the lineup, the 2019 Rays will eye a wild-card slot, if not even something better. They’re of course at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to competing with the Red Sox and Yankees, but the Rays are loaded at the upper levels, and they’ll have good pitchers coming back from surgery. Their window is beginning to open again, and Pham’s timeline fits with their own.

On the Cardinals’ side, this isn’t just a baseball trade. They like Bader, and they like O’Neill, but at least as important as that, they didn’t like Pham as much. Pham and the team didn’t always get along, and regardless of who you blame for that more, some relationships can’t be mended.

Even as far back as April 2017, the Cardinals were giving Matt Adams starts in the outfield while Pham had to play in Triple-A. Pham made no secret of being displeased, not that that was the only thing going on. The Cardinals could’ve tried to patch things up, but perhaps the relationship was too far gone. At some point, you can’t overcome the impressions you’ve already formed. Pham, then, has been granted a change of scenery. I do think he’s been sold low, but the Cardinals didn’t trade him for nothing.

Williams is a 22-year-old corner outfielder with more talent than polish. He’s been maybe an average hitter in Triple-A, and he’s been trying to lift the ball more often. He has more power than his eight home runs would suggest, and the Cardinals’ player development will now get a chance to pick up where the Rays left off. They’ve had success with inferior skillsets before. Cabrera is a 21-year-old lefty starter in Double-A. His strikeouts have surged forward, but he probably won’t develop enough command to start in the bigs. Ramirez is a 23-year-old righty reliever in Double-A. His strikeouts, too, have surged since he stopped starting. Like virtually any minor-league reliever, he could show up in the bigs at a moment’s notice. You know all the various paths those players can take.

If the Cardinals can turn Williams into a regular, they’ll come away pleased. They have one of the better player-development systems in the game, so as far as Williams’ career is concerned, this is a promising destination. But Williams is far from a lock, and Pham appears to be a good player now. The Rays couldn’t pass that opportunity up, even if Pham isn’t going to push them into the hunt down the stretch. This is an offseason move that’s simply been made some number of months early. The Cardinals will be happy to play more of Bader. The Rays will be happy to have their hands on Pham. The Cardinals’ window of contention seemingly never closes, but the Rays’ is just opening up.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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I love the inside baseball about the expensive piece of exercise equipment. Great piece.