Maybe it’s the self-satisfying pleasure that comes with saying ‘I told you so’ that spurred it, but I have always had an obsession with looking back at old baseball transactions and seeing how much of an effect that they actually had. Were they genius diamonds in the rough or era-defining brain farts? I think it’s equally fun to marvel at the incredible value accrued from the Chris Archer trade and jeer at the Pablo Sandoval contract from 2015.
There is an assumption across baseball that the Rays are omnipotent transaction prophets. They hit with every signing and steal from every franchise they trade with. If you watch the team regularly you will know that isn’t entirely the case, even if Erik Neander may have a higher expected fleece percentage (xFL) than most other general managers in the league. The Rays had 100 wins last year, setting a new franchise record and having the best regular season record in the American League, but how much did last year’s offseason contribute to that success? Let’s take a look back at the Rays 2020/21 offseason and see what hit and missed. Before we begin, be grateful I am not covering the Red Sox or I would have titled this article ‘Chaim-sight is 2020’. (Sorry)
Before we look at what they did, we need to examine what they didn’t do. The Rays had a few decisions to make on whether or not to pick up some players’ options or tender contracts to others. Tampa decided to pass on free agent reliever Aaron Loup, non-tender outfielder Hunter Renfroe and decline the option on starting pitcher Charlie Morton. Unfortunately, all of these decisions came back to haunt this year’s team like Dickensian reminders of the consequences of miserly behaviour. Morton was a postseason hero while pitching through a broken leg in Atlanta, helping the Braves to a World Series championship. Loup broke through his expectations of a loogy to be one of the best relievers in all of baseball with the Mets, posting a sub-one ERA! Any Rays fan can tell you the headache Hunter Renfroe caused Tampa during his tenure with the Red Sox. The outfielder decided to make his former team suffer for their deeds, posting a .338 batting average with 15 extra-base hits in 18 games against the Rays, including this devastating throw to nail Joey Wendle and end the game.
Already the losses are telling a damning tale, but can the replacement signings make up for them? Neander decided to take the $15 million saved on Morton’s option and spread it around to multiple veteran pitchers with an intent to make it add up to more quality innings than Morton can provide – the Morton fund would sign Michael Wacha for $3 million and Rich Hill for $2.5, as well as sponsoring a reunion with fan favourite Chris Archer for $6.5 million. This strategy would not pay off, as Archer, the most expensive of the trio, would spend the season on the injured list, contributing less than 20 innings over 2021. Hill would deliver an excellent month of May that would see him earn an American League Pitcher of the Month award, but would ultimately pitch to a bang-average 102 ERA+ during his 95 innings with the Rays before being traded to the Mets mid-season. Wacha was the most enduring of the three, pitching the second-most amount of innings on the team, but ultimately struggled to a rather ugly 5.05 ERA, which is a 78 ERA+. Combined, the three threw 239 1/3 innings to a 4.55 ERA, which is below league average. Conversely, Morton pitched 185 2/3 innings to a well above average 3.34 ERA. So while the innings were provided for, the quality of said innings was nowhere near the quality they could have had if they retained ‘Uncle Charlie’.
Collin McHugh was an under-the-radar signing that ended up working extremely well, as he was lights out in a bullpen that desperately needed a steady hand during an injury-plagued season dealing heavy hits to last year’s key closers such as Nick Anderson and Peter Fairbanks.
The only other significant signing Tampa made last offseason was the re-signing of catcher Mike Zunino. ‘Big Z’ was ultimately the most important signing of the offseason, posting a career-high in home runs (33), bWAR (3.8) and OPS (.860). Zunino would make his first all-star appearance and even earned MVP votes for his outstanding campaign, and for just $3M, the Rays backstop may prove to be the best bargain of the whole offseason.
Finally, the Rays wouldn’t be the Rays without a boatload of trades to assess. Last offseason Tampa Bay made a few significant trades, like offloading major-league talent Nate Lowe to Texas, José Alvarado to Philadelphia, Aaron Slegers to the Angels and John Curtiss to Miami, but there is one trade that will rule them all and created a plethora of national headlines – the Blake Snell trade.
On 27 December 2020, the Rays shocked the baseball world by trading their ace pitcher and former Cy Young award winner, Blake Snell, to the San Diego Padres for a package of prospects: Luis Patiño, Francisco Mejía, Cole Wilcox and Blake Hunt. Snell was only two years removed from his outstanding Cy Young campaign and served as their most accomplished veteran pitcher after the departure of Morton. The move had many an analyst scratching their head and trying to figure out why the Rays would do such a thing. Many believed this was a sign Tampa were tearing it down and beginning a rebuild, others reasoned that Snell had demanded a trade after his early removal from World Series game six. For the record, both those theories are ludicrous and reek of a lack of research. The team was still far too good to warrant a rebuild, and this isn’t the NBA, players don’t demand trades for petty grievances. Snell even said himself that he was a bit annoyed at the time but was completely fine with the move the next day.
If the Rays make a trade for any reason, it’s for the prospects. Hunt and Wilcox are both promising but are a discussion for another day considering they are still in the lower levels of the minor leagues and will be further evaluated at a more appropriate time. Mejía had been a highly-regarded prospect for a considerable length of time, but couldn’t quite make things click in Cleveland or San Diego. With the Rays he was given the backup catcher role behind Zunino and delivered a very good and underrated season as Z’s understudy. In 84 games, Mejía put up a 108 wRC+ to go alongside some improved fielding to finish with 1.6 bWAR – placing him 18th amongst catchers in 2021 and the second best backup behind only Daulton Varsho.
Mejía was a definite hit for the Rays, but what about Patiño? Patiño was held in high esteem for his electric fastball but was still very young and had yet to find a consistent put-away pitch to complement his hard stuff. This evaluation remained accurate in 2021 as he struggled to be consistent after the first time through the order, and ended up losing his rotation spot by the end of the season. He will have a chance to earn that place back in spring training, and at just 22 years old, the jury is still out on the right-hander. After one year, Patiño and Mejía put up a combined 1.7bWAR to trump Snell’s 1.3 with the Padres. So perhaps the trade will be for the best? Until Hunt and Wilcox arrive, however, we can’t possibly put a final verdict on this one yet.
To conclude, the Rays mostly found hits in their previous offseason. The Snell trade, Zunino’s resigning and finding McHugh in the bargain bin all helped the team significantly in 2021. The key misstep was the decision to let Charlie Morton depart and try and use the money to find more innings from several cheaper pitchers. I personally believe that not having Morton was the difference in the postseason loss to the Red Sox. A lack of an extra veteran starter that you know would deliver under the bright lights hurt the Rays when it mattered most, and we now await the conclusion of the MLB lockout to see if the Neander and co. have learned from last year’s mistake. Until then, get your GM hats on, and let’s see if we can predict what comes next.
Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice
Patrick Davenport is one of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @UKRaysBoi