Reading the Trade Tea Leaves: What Do they Mean for the Pittsburgh Pirates?
From the afternoon of Thursday January 9 to the end of the day on Friday January 10 Pittsburgh Pirates’ Twitter, Facebook Groups and blogs were blowing up. Much of this could be expected due to the signing of former Tampa Bay Ray’s Outfielder Guillermo Heredia to a major league deal and the subsequent DFA of utility man and Pirates’ past top-10 prospect Pablo Reyes, as well as the signing former Braves catcher John Ryan Murphy to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. Even more of it could have been predicted with the 10th being the Arbitration Deadline and the Pirates having 8 arbitration-eligible players that everyone was focused on, wondering if they would sign or elect to go an arbitration hearing in February. The one topic that came out in the middle of all of this, which caused a similar amount of internet traffic was a trade between the Tampa Bay Rays and the St. Louis Cardinals. You read that right; a trade between two teams outside of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization contributed to a flurry of Tweets, Posts and discussions about the Pirates.
By now everyone has probably seen the trade. The Rays sent their #4 prospect and MLB pipeline’s #41 prospect LHP Matthew Liberatore and rookie-level catcher Edgardo Rodriguez to the Cardinals. In return the Cardinals sent 1B/OF Jose Martinez and OF Randy Arozarena to the Rays. The teams also swapped competitive-balance round picks, with the Rays getting an A (after the first round) and the Cards getting a B (after the second round). So, what does any of this have to do with the Pittsburgh Pirates? Well to many Pirates Fans, bloggers, etc. this trade was seen as positive sign for the trade market of Pirates’ current CF Starling Marte. If Martinez and Arazarena could nab a stud pitching prospect and a young promising catching prospect, surely Marte could bring in a similar haul or potentially something even better because Marte is clearly a better player than these two combined. The last part of this rational isn’t even in question. Marte is one of the top players at his position, Martinez is average to above average player with some position flexibility and Arozarena is a OF with plenty of potential, who has only 19 games of MLB experience. What I am questioning is if Marte could bring a similar or even better return. Essentially, can this trade be used as a “comp” for a potential Marte trade?
If I were asked to look at this trade in isolation my answer would be simple. Absolutely! Absolutely I believe it could be seen as a “comp” for Marte and I would be right alongside other Pirates' fans expecting exactly what they and people in the Pirates' organization have been looking for in a trade; a young promising catcher prospect and a top end pitching prospect, who is a lefty as a bonus. However, I can’t jump on the bandwagon just yet without looking at the totality of the Tampa Bay Rays moves this off-season; especially some of the more notable trades and acquisitions to determine the possible motivations and/or reasoning behind this trade.
On December 6, Rays pitcher Blake Snell found out with the rest of the world that his team had traded LF Tommy Pham (and AAA SS Jake Cronenworth) to the San Diego Padres for LF Hunter Renfroe and SS prospect Xavier Edwards. From the moment this trade happened experts were formulating that the Rays made this trade to get the younger Renfroe for the older Pham for the years of control that each of them had left before they reached free agency. Pham is scheduled to be a UFA in 2022, while Renfroe is under team control until until 2024. Their decision could also have been influenced by the fact that Pham was estimated to receive $8.6 Million in arbitration (he ended up signing for $7.9) and Renfroe was only due approximately $3.4 (he signed for $3.3). This speculation was given further confirmation when the Rays signed Japanese IF/OF Yoshitomo Tsutsugo to a 2-year, $12 million deal 10 days later on December 16.
Then came the deal with the Cardinals that set Pirates Twitter on fire. It was so on fire that hardly anyone could see through the flames and smoke to a trade that the Rays made mere hours after their deal with Cardinals. The Rays shipped long reliever/spot starter/swing man, RHP Austin Pruitt to the Astros for prospects OF Cal Stevenson and RHP Peyton Battenfield. This was not a major move, but as with the Rays every move is known to have a corresponding to either replenish their farm system, reallocate money they have “saved”, fill a perceived void in their 40-man and/or acquire a player or multiple players with position flexibility. The Rays basically turned the questionable Tommy Pham trade and his perceived $8.6 million dollar value into a younger OF with more control and less cost in Hunter Renfroe and Japanese slugging IF/OF in Yoshitomo Tstutsugo. They went on to add another young OF (Arozarena) into the mix with team control through through 2025 and an 1B/OF/prototypical DH (Martinez) for 3 years and a manageable salary.
After all these moves and others the Rays are currently projected at a total payroll of around $58 Million, which is $6 Million below their payroll last year, so they still have “flexibility” to make even more additions to their near Houston Astros-beating lineup of a year ago. And all they have done is gotten younger in some areas, added more years of control in others, gave up two prospects that won’t be in the majors for 2 years or more and traded an aging LF with some injury concerns and a ever increasing salary. Now I am not claiming that the Rays have won these trades or that they will now overcome the Yankees, Astros, Twins or whoever else comes along in the American League to win the pennant. What I am claiming is that the Rays operate different from a lot of other teams and that one trade that they make cannot be used as a “comp” for really anything. They operate with a goal of maintaining a low payroll, having players that they can control for as long as possible and players that give them both positional and financial flexibility.
I already know that there are many people out there that completely disagree with my take on this situation; just go to my Twitter feed @BucsBasement and you will see how much love I got. However, the one thing you can’t disagree with is that this has not been your normal off-season and it was a bit of a strange trade deadline before that. Many teams, not just the Rays, are focusing on years of control for their young players, specifically the nearly ready minor leaguers or ones newly added to the now 26-man roster. Other teams that can obviously spend the money are fighting to get under the competitive balance tax threshold.
A few years back you could have made comps of almost any trade and figured out a package that you could or would get for a specific player on your favorite team. I just don’t see that being the case right now. This doesn’t mean that the Pittsburgh Pirates won’t get a top pitching prospect and a young promising catcher for Marte, I just think the chances of this happening as easily and as quickly as some Pirates' fans expect is getting less and less with each passing day.
Follow Craig on Twitter: @BucsBasement