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Cardinals trade partner profile: Tampa Bay Rays

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What do you do with a team that very well could but probably won’t sell you their best stuff?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the third installment in a series of articles profiling organizations that might match up well as trade partners for the Cardinals this offseason. The intent of these pieces is not to propose or analyze specific trade ideas (although I will suggest a framework trade or three, and kicking around specific ideas in the comments is encouraged). The idea is to provide readers with more information about organizations they might not know as well as they know the Cardinals, so they can be more informed for Hot Stove season. Previous entries can be found here.

The previous entry in this series examined the Toronto Blue Jays, who have enticing targets but might not be selling at all. This time, we’re looking at the Tampa Bay Rays, who have enticing guys of their own, and will be selling... something, but it’s not yet clear what the something will be. The Rays are good enough that, in a vacuum, it makes sense for them to hold on to their best players, but they also have such strict financial limits that they live in a world of perpetual hard choices. And that opens the door to something major happening.

Things to know from 2017

The Rays were baseball’s best team with a losing record last year. I don’t say that because, at 80-82, they led the sub-500 teams in wins. I say it because they had a good roster and played well overall, but the clutch and sequencing bugs bit them hard and dragged their record down.

Surveying production across their roster, the Rays look pretty good — not world-beaters, but like a team that ought to have been in wild-card contention:

  • Outfielder Steven Souza Jr. led the position players in fWAR with 3.7, and Kevin Kiermaier (3.0 fWAR in about 23 of a season) and Corey Dickerson (2.6) combined with Souza to make up one of the strongest outfields in the American League.
  • Third baseman Evan Longoria’s slide as a hitter — ongoing since 2014, albeit with a positive spike last year — continued, as his 96 wRC+ marked the first year in his career of below-average offensive production. Still, he’s a good enough defender that he was worth 2.5 wins.
  • Free agent first base acquisition Logan Morrison had a career year with 3.3 fWAR. He’s now a free agent again.
  • July trade departure Tim Beckham and July trade acquisition Adeiny Hechavarria (different trades) were both around average at shortstop.
  • Anchored by Chris Archer’s electric stuff, the rotation was above average, posting a collective 11.3 fWAR. Youngsters Blake Snell (129 IP, 1.9 fWAR), Jake Faria (81 IP, 1.3 fWAR), and Matt Andriese (83 IP, 0.5 fWAR but weighed down by a fluky HR/FB rate) were all valuable contributors in partial seasons, departing free agent Alex Cobb was good (179 IP, 2.4 fWAR), and Jake Odorizzi (143 IP, 0.1 fWAR) stunk up the joint but hey, the others were good.
  • The bullpen was good. Nothing amazing, but no real stinkers either, and if you can avoid real stinkers your bullpen is going to be above average. Closer Alex Colome is good, though not great.

The only problem spot for the Rays this year was second base, where Brad Miller failed to follow up on his 30-homer 2016 and provided a big fat nothing. He’s still arbitration-eligible but is unlikely to be back.

So why did they only win 80? BaseRuns saw them as an 87-win team, and third-order wins put them at 89. Put simply, they stunk in the clutch. Their hitters were 24th in MLB (one spot ahead of the Cards!) in FanGraphs’ Clutch statistic, and had just a 79 wRC+ as a group with runners in scoring position. Their pitchers pitched well overall, but had a hard time stranding runners. Clutch and situational performance aren’t skills — you don’t project them to stay bad just because they’ve been bad — but they sure did kill the Rays in 2017.

Strengths

Archer is the big name, obviously. From 2014 (his first full season) to now, he is 12th among MLB pitchers in fWAR and 6th in innings pitched. He drops to 29th over that span if you use RA9-WAR, but that’s still very good. He signed a cheap pre-arbitration extension in April 2014, and is owed just $33.75 over the next four seasons (with team options for both 2020 and ‘21, in case he breaks). He’d basically be a second Carlos Martinez.

As mentioned above, Tampa’s outfield is also very good. Kiermaier is a defensive god who also hits enough to make him an excellent overall player, and he has a cheap pre-arb extension running through 2023. But durability concerns are a problem for him; he’s only managed 150 games in a season once in his pro career. Souza broke out, and is an interesting guy to watch moving forward.

Longoria is a name we all know, but he just turned 32 and it’s no longer clear that he’s a star. The ROY and MVP candidate of 2008-11 — the 135 wRC+ hitter and elite 3B defender — is gone on both sides of the ball, and he now projects as a merely above-average hitter and defender. That’s still a good player, just not a great one. He’s owed $81M through 2022, which eats into his value considerably, but he still projects as a positive net asset.

And then there’s the farm system, which is excellent. It’s perhaps not quite as deep as the Cardinals’ system, but it has better top-end talent. The names you probably already know and should if you don’t are Willy Adames (consensus top-15 prospect, SS/2B, ETA 2018), Brent Honeywell (ditto except RHP), Jake Bauers (a very Matt-Carpenter-ish 1B prospect, except he’s not sneaking up on anybody), and Brendan McKay (drafted 1-4 in 2017, a legit two-way player in college who they’re letting give it a shot; he was good in both roles in low-A). Others of note include:

  • Jose de Leon: very talented RHP but he hasn’t stayed on the mound; 2017 was eaten up by three separate DL trips for three different injuries.
  • Chih-Wei Hu: RHP signed out of Taiwan by Minnesota and then acquired by the Rays, who converted him to relief; showed up in Tampa late this year and may be up for good.
  • Garrett Whitley: OF with big-time tools but still considered raw; ceiling would be a power-speed-strikeouts-walks guy like Carlos Gomez or Mike Cameron, but a long way to go yet.
  • Jesus Sanchez: OF with (again) serious tools but a long way to go; good performer at age 19 in full-season debut and some scouts see star potential.

That’s far from a complete overview of their farm, but for the sake of length I’ll stop here — suffice to say it’s a good, deep organization.

Needs

A lower payroll, primarily. The Rays are a franchise defined by their financial limits. They have never had an Opening Day payroll higher than $77M. They have never had an end-of-season payroll (i.e. including the cost of midseason acquisitions) higher than $81M. That was last year, and ownership has already been clear that number is going to come down over the winter. After projected arbitration raises are factored in, the Rays currently project for a payroll in the mid-80-millions. So the Rays have got around $10M in offseason cuts to accomplish, mandated by their owners.

The subtext of this need to trim 2018 payroll is that they’ll have to do it again in 2019, and 2020, and 2021, ad infinitum. There is a new round of arbitration raises every year, and if payroll isn’t going to grow much, then each offseason will pose a new round of painful choices. No Tampa Bay Ray is scheduled to make more than $13.7M next year, and yet we can say with total certainty that a few will be traded simply because they’ve become a tiny bit expensive.

In order to field a competitive team — which their front office has done an admirable job of doing — under these constraints, the Rays need a constant stream of good prospects who might become good players making the minimum. That is a fundamental truth of their business model, in a way that’s pretty unique in baseball: the Rays NEED prospects. Always. Every year. High-ceiling ones, that might become the next Archer or Longoria. Because without a constant churn of young talent that they can pay six or seven figures instead of eight, the Rays are sunk.

What they should do

Here’s a list of players and projected 2018 salaries: Longoria (13.7), Wilson Ramos (8.5), Odorizzi (6.5), Archer (6.4), Dickerson (6.4), Kiermaier (5.7), Colome (5.5), Hechavarria (5.0), Souza (3.6), Dan Jennings (2.5), Brad Boxberger (1.9). (Miller is a likely non-tender or pure salary dump at $4.4M, and the ~$10M I think they need to trim assumes he’s already gone.) What the Rays need to do, and I assume will do, is shop every one of those players around, assess the offers, and make whatever moves get them under the payroll line in 2018 with the best mix of staying relevant now and keeping the prospect mill humming.

How that will turn out, I can’t begin to guess. That’s 11 names, plus Miller, and probably 25 interested teams to talk to. Don’t ask me.

How they match up with St. Louis

Not great, at least not one-to-one. There’s no glaring efficiency to be gained via trade between these two clubs, the way the Marlins really need somebody else to pay Giancarlo Stanton and the Cardinals are on a short list of teams that ought to be willing to do that.

Sure, the Cardinals would be happy to take Longoria or Archer or Kiermaier off their hands, but so would most of the league. The Cards’ outfield glut probably isn’t attractive, as the Rays’ outfield is already good and none of them is individually that expensive. I do wonder if the Rays aren’t a club forward-thinking enough to put a really high value on a weird story like Tommy Pham — a budget-restricted team betting on Pham is what you might call a David Strategy — but that’s just spitballing. Maybe the Rays would have interest in Kolten Wong (or, sneaky answer, Greg Garcia) to stabilize 2B until Adames arrives, but Adames may be arriving soon enough that they won’t bother.

So there’s no obvious fit, that I can see. The Rays have some assets the Cards could use, but the Cards don’t really have anything that would make them stand out from the crowd, from the Rays’ perspective.

Which means, if the Cardinals want Chris Archer (or whomever), they need to offer more than everybody else, and hope it’s enough to convince the Rays to do their payroll trimming that way instead of some other way with some other team. That’s not impossible (nor would it be unprecedented for even a contending Rays team to do it), but when they’ve got so many other potential paths to reaching $75M in 2018 payroll, convincing them to surrender their best player would not be easy.

Framework trades

So now we’re at Kelly, Reyes, and one of either Weaver or Flaherty. The problem is, we’re only about 80% of the way there according to the surplus values used here. ...

The Rays would be justified in wanting more. They don’t really need outfielders, but it be nice if they were interested in Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Harrison Bader, or Magneuris Sierra. ...

Perhaps it would only take one of the above four outfielders. Maybe it would take two of them. Maybe it would take one of them as well as Dakota Hudson or Sandy Alcantara.

The point is that with the Cardinals’ lack of very top of the line prospects, it could take as many as five good prospects for the Cardinals to acquire an arm as elite as Chris Archer.

I’m with Ben on the “as many as five good prospects” line. Say it’s Reyes + Weaver + Kelly + Alcantara + Grichuk/Bader (either of whom I think works well for the Rays as a platoon mate for Dickerson and injury caddy for Kiermaier). The Rays rotation next year projects as Archer-Snell-Faria-Andriese-Nate Eovaldi/de Leon/Honeywell. Making that Snell-Faria-Weaver-Andriese/Reyes-Eovaldi/de Leon/Honeywell does make it worse, but not dramatically so. Kelly provides a natural successor to Ramos when he leaves after 2018 (or is traded this winter). And Grichuk or Bader provides solid value in, say, 350 mostly-platoon-advantaged PAs. Cards get their man at a very high price and backfill the lost depth through free agency, Rays stay looking roughly as contender-ish as they already do, but cheaper and with more useful minimum-salary troops.

  • The Longoria Trade: with Longoria coming to St. Louis, Kolten Wong becomes expendable (Gyorko’s contract is too spendy for Tampa’s taste, I’m guessing). I’m getting about $45M in surplus value for Longoria on the back of my envelope, and $53M for Wong. Let’s call it even, and part as friends.
  • Eh, a bullpen thing: Get Colome and Boxberger for, I dunno, Grichuk and Austin Gomber or whatever. A less good outcome for the Bottenfield chain than the first one, but you work with what you got.

If the Cardinals are going to convince the Rays to trade them something major (like Archer or Kiermaier) they will have to dig deep, because the Rays can afford to be opportunistic this offseason. A smaller deal is much more likely (a smaller deal is always much more likely). But it’s fun, and not a little scary, to think about.