The Tommy Pham trade. For some, just mentioning it will make your blood boil.
In July of 2018, the Cardinals traded their fan-favorite outfielder to the Rays for outfielder Justin Williams, lefty prospect Genesis Cabrera, and developmental reliever Roel Ramirez.
Most Cardinal fans agree that the trade was eat-your-heart-out-with-a-spoon-because-it-will-hurt-more-cousin stupidity.
I loved Tommy Pham. I checked around and it seems the rest of VEB did, too. (Search for old articles; they’re worth reading!) He was a Statcast dream. He was a great story. He was an insider who told the truth about the way the Cardinals operated.
Which is why Mozeliak traded him. Isn’t that how the theory goes?
Pham, frustrated after battling through injuries in the minors for pennies, wanted to get paid what he felt he was worth. His honest appraisal of management didn’t fit with the well-cultivated “Cardinal way” of quietly playing good soldier. So, the front office shipped him out at his lowest value for a minimal return to fix the clubhouse dynamics and save DeWitt’s DeWallet, production be damned!
(If that take is off, I know you’ll correct it in the comments. There are as many theories on “what happened with the Pham trade” as there are Cardinal fans and everyone defends their particular brand of conspiracy with tin-foil ferocity. The only truth about the Pham trade is that they don’t want us to know the truth!)
With Pham and his Padres facing the Cardinals in whatever this round of the expanded playoffs is called, it seemed like a great time to revisit the trade. Was it as bad as fans believe?
On July 31, 2018, the club had a 54-53 record and looked like they were going to miss the playoffs again. Their clubhouse was a mess. The Cardinals found themselves in the unfamiliar position of deadline sellers and were facing a retool of their management and lineup. The trade deadline provided an opportunity to get a head start on that process.
The 2018 outfield was supposed to be a strength. Mozeliak had traded for 5-WAR left-fielder Marcel Ozuna during the offseason. Fowler was coming off a solid season. Tommy Pham had exploded into an MVP threat.
Nothing went as planned. Ozuna’s shoulder issues sapped his power. Fowler’s production collapsed. Pham struggled to a .248/.331/.399 line.
When the Cardinals began looking toward the future, the outfield was a logical place to start. Mozeliak was contract-locked with Fowler. Ozuna was the new toy. Pham, meanwhile, had a recent history of elite production and an attractive number of controllable years remaining. However, as a late-bloomer, he was already on the wrong side of the aging curve. He fit the old Branch Rickey/Whitey Herzog adage: “it’s better to trade a player a year early than a year late.”
This made all the more sense considering what was happening behind Pham. Harrison Bader, a 24-year-old with divine defense in centerfield and intriguing power, was surging. With Bader as a starter, the club would get younger in their outfield, significantly improve their up-the-middle defense, and cut their upcoming budget projections. Maybe they could ease some clubhouse/front office conflict, too.
Just like that, Pham was a Ray, and Bader was the Cardinals’ answer in center.
There are lots of ways to evaluate the deal. Looking at the return would be the best way and we’ll consider that. First, I want to discuss what the Cardinals have lost in terms of production by choosing Bader over Pham. How much has it hurt?
With the Rays, Pham spent a brief stretch on the DL and then caught fire. For the rest of 2018, he hit .355/.452/.645 and produced 2.5 WAR. That raised his overall production to 130 wRC+ and 4.1 fWAR.
Despite not seeing everyday time until after Pham’s departure, Bader nearly equaled Pham in ‘18. His wRC+ was a slightly above average 107 but his value was buoyed by elite defense. His UZR was 9.4. This combination produced 3.6 fWAR.
In 2018, the two players were separated by only half a win.
This is when aging curves enter. Pham has since played two seasons (one shortened by COVID and a broken bone) over the age of 30 for the Rays and Padres. Here’s his slash line and wRC+ by age from his peak (age 29 with the Cardinals) through today (age 32 with San Diego):
2017 (29) – .306/.411/.520, 149 wRC+
2018 (30) – .275/.367/.464, 130
2019 (31) – .273/.369/.450, 121
2020 (32) – .211/.312/.312, 78
Notice the declining wRC+. Pham, a late bloomer, had a short peak in his late 20’s. He’s been trending downward since.
From 2018-2020, including his time with the Cardinals, Pham’s fWAR is 7.1.
And Bader? His wRC+ per age isn’t nearly as attractive.
2018 (24) – .264/.334/.422, 107 wRC+
2019 (25) – .205/.314/.366, 81
2020 (26) – .226/.336/.443, 113
While Bader couldn’t match Pham’s bat, his consistently excellent glove has still yielded a cumulative fWAR of 6.4.
Didn’t expect that, did you?
The difference between Bader and Pham from 2018-2020 is just .7 fWAR (and .5 of that difference came when the two players were on the same Cardinals team.)
The two players have been essentially equal in overall production since the trade happened.
Money was a motivator in the deal. What about the finances?
Pham’s salary has escalated with arbitration and he was set to make $7.9M in ’20. Bader is still laboring under pre-arb rates. By $/WAR, Bader’s cumulative value is $50.9M. His actual cost is a little over $1.5M. Pham’s cumulative value is $58.9M at a salary outlay of $8.1M.
The net value-added result is $49.4M for Bader and $50.8M for Pham.
That’s a difference of about $1.4M in Pham’s favor over three seasons.
Folks, that’s as close as a trade can be: .7 fWAR, $1.4M.
None of that justifies the trade, though. The Cardinals didn’t have to trade Pham. They could have kept both players. They could have benched or released Fowler. They could have traded a young Bader at his peak value. There are lots of things the Cardinals could have done.
They didn’t do those things. They traded Pham to play Bader. So, that’s the path we have to evaluate.
Yes, the trade still hurts, but if you remove the gut-punch from the deal and consider it objectively, the deal isn’t so blood-boilingly bad.
Here’s the new “Tommy Pham trade” narrative I propose: the Cardinals traded an aging center fielder who was heading toward a decline in production and an increase in salary to 1) create space for a young player who provided equal value, though in a very different way and 2) acquire a very intriguing prospect (Genesis Cabrera) and some other useful pieces.
Was it a good deal? I’ll never agree that it was.
Was it the worst deal ever? Definitely not.
Has it worked out pretty evenly? (Grumble grumble.) I guess so. (Grumble grumble).
Now, I know what you all will say: “Not all production is equal!” “The Cardinals needed a bat, not a glove!” “I would take a 30-something Pham over ‘platinum sombrero’ Bader any day!”
The comments on this article are going to be a disaster.
Look, I get it. Bader’s fWAR is even with Pham by number but it has sure been messy. He’s a frustrating player. I know that as much as anyone… Bader keeps throwing my articles about him in the “virtual trashcan.” I’m no Bader-stan.
Keeping Pham, though, would have had consequences. With Pham’s escalating salary, would the Cardinals have traded for Goldschmidt? Would the team be better with Pham than without him? I doubt it.
It’s been obvious since the Piscotty/Grichuk trades that the Cardinals’ strategy is to cycle outfielders like car leases. Every few years their system allows them to test drive new models for no money down and no long-term commitment. Pham joins a long list of outfielders whom the Cardinals looked at and then sent away. More of the same is likely coming this offseason.
For this short playoff series, though, we get a first-hand look at the impact of this trade: Pham vs. Bader, with some Genesis Cabrera thrown in for good measure. Pham is looking to stick it to the Cards. So far, he’s digging that dull spoon in pretty painfully. Bader’s historically bad day didn’t help. Today, as the series continues, a Pham vs. Bader debate can rage on.
Enjoy it! I still love Tommy Pham. So, I’ll be hoping that he personally does well. But I’ll be cheering for the Cardinals and Bader to win.