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Tommy Pham Returns, Then and Now

Yikes, Cardinals fans. Yikes.

MLB: ALDS-Tampa Bay Rays at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Tommy Pham was traded yesterday. Or maybe today. Or maybe it hasn’t been officially announced yet. The point is, he’s headed to San Diego (so am I, actually, for the winter meetings!). And because the Rays are the Rays, it’s now time to work out whether they did what they always do and turned a nickel into two dimes. I don’t want to do it, but I don’t make the rules: when the Rays make trades, we all have to turn into financial cretins and do the cost-benefit analysis.

First, let’s start with the recent trade. We’ll start with the most important part of it all: Pham is going to look absolutely great in the new Padres uniforms. Can you imagine a better combination of player and jersey, other than Pham in Cardinals red? Probably not! But okay, the real considerations: the Padres sent Hunter Renfroe, Xavier Edwards, and a player to be named later to the Rays in exchange for Pham and Jake Cronenworth.

It’s simplistic to simply cross out Cronenworth and the player to be named later, so let’s take a quick peek at Cronenworth first. He’s an intriguing prospect, the kind I’d be ecstatic to see on the Cardinals. He hit an absolute ton at Triple-A this year, with the kind of bat control and plate discipline that let him take advantage of the newly lively ball to the tune of ten bombs and an ISO 100 points higher than his previous best.

That’s not to say he’s found a new level or anything: but look at Cronenworth’s 2019 and tell me you don’t think about Tommy Edman at least a little. He doesn’t have Edman’s speed, but he has the high contact and the defensive versatility, and the power also appeared seemingly out of nowhere with the new baseball.

That’s not to say he’s going to suddenly be a great hitter in the major leagues, of course. That’s not always how it goes, and there’s plenty not to love about his profile; if he was that good, he might be in the major leagues already, and he probably would have hit a bit better at past minor league stops. But there’s a lot to like there, and this is absolutely the kind of player I think more teams should be taking a chance on these days.

Okay, so that’s Cronenworth. More valuable than a player to be named later, in my eyes, but something less than a Renfroe in the hand. Next, there’s Hunter Renfroe. This is one of those eye of the beholder deals: it’s possible to like what Renfroe brings to the table, and it’s also possible to take one look and say no thank you. Are there dingers? Absolutely. Are there strikeouts? You bet! What does the blend mean overall? Your guess is as good as mine!

My experience with Randall Grichuk leads me to believe that guys like this are reasonably replaceable. The power is real, but so are the strikeouts, and Renfroe doesn’t even have the speed to run silly BABIPS from time to time. He might give you thirty home runs, but he’ll probably do it with a sub-.300 OBP.

The interesting thing here is the defense; UZR and DRS thought Renfroe was one of the absolute best defenders in baseball last year, after never really being all that good before. Projection systems don’t really know what to do with this, and I don’t either. He’s probably not awful, but he’s probably also not as good as his line. Steamer projects him for less than a win next year, and while that seems low, it doesn’t seem *that* low.

Next there’s Xavier Edwards, and I’m just going to be lazy and do some subtraction. Using some sweet articles that Craig Edwards wrote up last year for FanGraphs, you can basically see that non-top 100 prospects amount to lottery tickets.

If Edwards is a random 50 FV batter (and he’s not -- FG is the low outlet on him, and Keith Law somewhat wildly has him among the top 50 prospects in all of baseball), then the difference between him and Cronenworth is the same as the entire value of the package the Cardinals got for Pham. I honestly don’t hate that valuation; it’s just really valuable to have high-tier prospects. I don’t like the type of prospect that Edwards is -- though Blake Snell had never heard of him, “slapdick” is right on the money -- but he has time to grow into power and he’s an 80 runner who could handle center with a little more practice out there. That’s a nice kind of prospect.

So okay, if we’re being super lazy, the Rays turned four prospects (Genesis Cabrera, Justin WIlliams, Roel Ramirez, and now Jake Cronenworth) for Hunter Renfroe, a player to be named later, and Xavier Edwards. That’s not an earth-shattering deal, but it’s good. Hunter Renfroe is the kind of fourth outfielder who most teams in baseball could use, and he’s cheap this year, though he’ll be a non-tender candidate next year given the Rays’ miserly ways.

There’s something missing though. For their troubles, the Rays employed Pham for roughly one and a half seasons. Over those two years, they paid him roughly $4.3 million. That’s a lot of money -- you and I, for example, didn’t get paid $4.3 million in the last four years. If you’re not putting much thought into it, you might say that the Rays spent $4.3 million to upgrade prospects and get a little Hunter Renfroe in their lives.

Only, that’s not what happened at all. Pham was superlative for the Rays. He was worth somewhere between 5.5 and 5.9 WAR in that time frame, depending on which website you prefer. 5.5 wins for $4.3 million dollars? That’s the kind of production that makes teams work, a star player making a role-player’s salary. Remove Pham from the picture and replace him with a journeyman making that same $4.3 million dollars, and the Rays might have missed the playoffs this year.

In essence, the Cardinals got fleeced. The Tampa/San Diego trade seems completely reasonable; an exchange of a star prospect and a bit piece for a bit prospect and a star regular. That’s the kind of trade that can leave both sides happy, and though I marginally prefer the Padres’ side, it’s not by a lot. What the Cardinals did -- panic-selling a not-particularly-distressed asset for whatever the Rays had in their pockets, jamming up their own 40-man roster to the point where they were forced to offload Oscar Mercado in the process -- is the kind of trade that teams like Tampa feast on.

So let that be a lesson in thinking about trades. Tommy Pham was exchanged for a package of roughly similar value twice. Once, however, the team selling him put themselves in a spot where they were simply going to move him. The front office has confirmed essentially as much. The other team traded Pham as part of a plan to rotate talent from 2020 into the future. Whether or not you agree with the details, they acted out of a combination of strategic and tactical considerations.

Oh yeah, one more thing. Pham’s value might have been roughly the same in trade this time and a year and a half ago, but that shouldn’t be. He’s a year older and a year closer to free agency now. He projects to make roughly double what he made last year in arbitration. The fact that he’s still a valuable asset, one that a team will give up a valuable prospect for instead of a smattering of somebodies, should be an indictment of the team’s management in 2018.