The Rays and Padres have teamed up on a number of trades in recent years, but none as momentous as the one that broke late Sunday night: Blake Snell is headed to San Diego in exchange for four young players.
Snell won the AL Cy Young award in 2018, is 28 years old, and remains under contract for the next three seasons for just $40.8 million total. Those seem like three good reasons to keep the guy—yet Tampa Bay is trading him for catcher Francisco Mejía, pitching prospects Luis Patiño and Cole Wilcox, and catching prospect Blake Hunt. It’s no surprise that this trade engenders almost as much controversy as the Rays’ last decision with Snell, in Game 6 of the World Series, exactly two months before.
Any baseball trade can produce a range of possible outcomes—and especially one like this, with so many young players and competing motivations. First impressions aren’t sacrosanct; after all, the ballyhooed Rays-Padres trade last winter involving Tommy Pham, Hunter Renfroe, and Xavier Edwards, a—in Snell’s words, ironically—“slapdick prospect,” looks likely to turn on Jake Cronenworth, an afterthought at the time of the deal. So let’s examine the upside and downside of the Snell swap for each team, and what it says about their varied approaches to competing for a title.
The Padres Win This Trade If …
Imagine this: The upstart playoff team that added a recent Cy Young award winner in his prime is likely to win the trade. The southpaw is one of the best per-inning starters in the majors; even if his 1.89 ERA and 21 wins from that award-winning campaign weren’t repeatable, he’s maintained his strikeout and walk rates, which had improved to an elite level that season.
Out of 150 pitchers who have thrown at least 200 innings over the past three seasons, Snell ranks:
- seventh in strikeout rate
- ninth in strikeout-minus-walk rate
- tied for seventh in park-adjusted ERA
- 18th in park-adjusted FIP
- 14th in ERA-based WAR
- 25th in FIP-based WAR
His WAR totals rank lower because of a reduced innings total—just 60th in the majors over that span—but Snell is a top-15 or so starter even factoring in volume. (The Steamer projection system ranks him exactly 15th among pitchers in projected 2021 WAR.)
For the Padres, Snell isn’t the first ace they’ve added in this calendar year—but he fills the hole left by that first ace, Mike Clevinger, who came to San Diego from Cleveland in August but will miss the entire 2021 season after having Tommy John surgery. The Padres were undone in the 2020 playoffs by a lack of high-quality starting pitching, as their top two starters both suffered injuries in the final week of the regular season. Now, with Snell on board and sleeper Cy Young candidate Dinelson Lamet back, San Diego has a rotation projected to be in the top 10, with the potential for an even loftier standing if prospects like MacKenzie Gore (FanGraphs’ no. 2 prospect in the majors) mature.
Are the Padres good enough to catch the Dodgers, reigning World Series champions and victors in eight straight division races, in the NL West? Probably not. The Los Angeles rotation looks even better than San Diego’s, and while the Padres rank third in projected 2021 team WAR—a fraction behind the Yankees—the Dodgers are ahead of the pack by a sizable margin.
But if the four other NL West teams are going to wait to make moves until the Dodgers’ dynasty reaches its dusk, they might never begin. The Padres are improving their MLB roster without sacrificing any other part of it: Snell is better than Patiño; Mejía was out of a job after the Padres traded for Austin Nola; the other prospects in the deal won’t play in the majors in 2021. With the core of a contender intact, they are wise to use the depth of their farm system to wrench the window open wide.
The Padres Lose This Trade If …
Barring a Snell injury—the ominous Clevinger precedent comes to mind—there’s really only one way the Padres can lose this trade, given their position on the win curve: if Patiño outperforms Snell over the next few seasons, like Tyler Glasnow did versus Chris Archer immediately following that infamous Rays-Pirates trade.
Squint past Snell’s reputation, and there are murmured concerns he’s not quite the ace he appears to be. With his Cy Young season counted, Snell ranks near the top of the league in a number of key stats, as discussed above—but he hasn’t been so dominant outside of that season. Take out 2018, for instance, and Snell has a career 3.88 ERA in nearly 400 innings—only about 10 percent better than league average. He hasn’t thrown more than 130 innings in any other MLB season.
He was also extraordinarily lucky that year, leading all qualified starters in strand rate—with, at the time, the second-best figure in MLB history—and ranking second in batting average on balls in play. Yet it’s not as if Snell is a soft-contact Kyle Hendricks–type starter who routinely induces low BABIPs; his career rate is .293, which is about league average. A graph of his ERA and BABIP allowed side by side illustrates this clear outlier season.
A pessimistic outcome for San Diego would be if Snell, whose rate stats with Tampa Bay benefitted from the Rays’ aversion to letting him pitch deep into games, veers more toward a mid-rotation arm than an ace. He still suffers, at times, from the bouts of wildness that plagued him early in his career. He hasn’t completed six innings in a game since July 2019, or thrown more than six innings since May 2019.
Yet he makes the Padres inarguably better right now, when they most need a pitching boost to complement Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, and all the other sluggers in their lineup. Even the downside scenario involves Snell taking the mound in Game 2 of a playoff series—and joining Lamet, a healthy Clevinger, and an MLB-ready Gore in the rotation the following season. It’s not hard to see why the Padres made the deal.
The Rays Win This Trade If …
Trades don’t have to be a zero-sum affair: Just because the Padres win doesn’t mean the Rays lose, or vice versa. Particularly with the caliber of talent changing sides here, a win-win or lose-lose outcome is also possible. So how do these possibilities look from the Rays’ perspective?
Tampa Bay’s side starts with the prospects, who leave the Padres’ second-ranked system for the Rays’ top-rated farm. Patiño is the prized prospect of the bunch, after finishing last season 10th on FanGraphs’ list. With a 97 mph average fastball and a wipeout slider, the 21-year-old Colombian’s career minor league numbers pop off the page: 2.35 ERA, 29.4 percent strikeout rate, and just seven home runs allowed in 234 innings.
Patiño struggled in a brief taste of big league action in 2020, thanks to uncharacteristic wildness. But he was also pushed to the MLB level by the pandemic despite lacking Triple-A experience and playing just two games in Double-A. Give him more time to develop, and there’s little doubt he will excel on a major league mound. ESPN prospect analyst Kiley McDaniel quoted team sources who opined that Patiño has “the best stuff in the minors … or something very close to it.”
There is risk inherent in every prospect, especially among pitchers, and Patiño’s slight build could mean that he’s unable to handle a traditional 200-inning workload. But if any team is positioned to maximize such a talent with careful handling and unorthodox usage, it’s the Rays. If trading Snell was a mandate, Patiño is about the best like-for-like replacement they could’ve hoped for.
The other returns might not bring Patiño’s ceiling, but they’re all intriguing for different reasons. Hunt wowed scouts at the instructional league this fall and will appear on FanGraphs’ next top-100 list. Wilcox, a hard-throwing righty, set a record when he received a $3.3 million bonus in the third round of this year’s draft. And Mejía was once a top-20 global prospect, though he’s seen his prospect sheen fade: He was the Padres’ return in the 2018 Brad Hand trade, but hasn’t proved he can catch or hit (he has a career .225/.282/.386 line) well enough to stick in a lineup.
Taken altogether for an organization with Tampa Bay’s developmental prowess, the Rays might reasonably hope that Patiño can become a top-of-the-rotation starter, that Mejía can be fixed, and that Hunt or Wilcox can turn into key pieces down the line. In a vacuum, this kind of return—two top-100 prospects, including one in the top tier, plus two more young players with potential—is reasonable for a pitcher with Snell’s track record.
The Rays Lose This Trade If …
There’s a problem with analyzing this trade in a vacuum: Like the Padres, the Rays are really good right now, and should try their darndest to contend while that’s true. They just played in the World Series! Yet they’ve now lost two of their three best pitchers from that roster because they didn’t want to pay them: Charlie Morton, whose $15 million option they declined, and Snell, whose eminently reasonable contract apparently wasn’t reasonable enough for the Rays.
Now, the reigning AL pennant winner’s no. 3 starter is—wait, that can’t be right—Michael Wacha, who ranks dead last in park-adjusted FIP over the past couple of seasons. Maybe Tampa Bay will add more arms throughout the offseason, using Snell’s vacated salary slot to backfill in the rotation. It has the room: Its projected 2021 payroll, according to Cot’s Contracts, was a measly $63 million even before this trade. But there’s reason to be skeptical of that possibility given the Rays’ penny-pinching history. So for now, until proved otherwise, Wacha is their no. 3 starter.
The Rays have plenty more pitching depth in their prospect ranks—not just with Patiño, but with Brendan McKay, Shane McClanahan, Shane Baz, Joe Ryan, and more. Any or all of them could become very good pitchers. But will any of them develop into as dynamic a pitcher as Snell? And will any of them do so in 2021, when the Rays, who were already short on starters last postseason, need to replace two rotation mainstays as they try to repeat as AL champs?
Even if the pure future WAR calculations from this trade end up favoring Tampa Bay in the long run, a team in the Rays’ position should value an extra win in 2021 more than an extra theoretical win in 2024 or 2029, when they start playing the prospects they eventually, inevitably acquire for Patiño once he starts getting expensive.
This trade exemplifies the divergent approaches for the two teams involved. When the Padres developed a nucleus of talent, they built around it to target wins in the present, signing Machado and Eric Hosmer in free agency and trading for Clevinger, Snell, Nola, and Pham. The Dodgers are still in the way, but San Diego is doing everything it can to challenge the champs.
The Rays, conversely, try to maintain a perpetual prospect motion machine, trading Snell for the potential next Snell, who just happens to be cheaper. This model helped them make the World Series; it’s also caused them to get rid of two of their top three pitchers from that team—and so far, at least, not bother to replace them. The 2024 Rays will probably benefit from this trade. But the 2021 team, with aims on the first title in franchise history, will not.