On Sunday night, the Tampa Bay Rays sent former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell to the San Diego Padres in exchange for a handful of current and recent prospects, and the reaction of most baseball fans, or at least those in my admittedly insular bubble of the Deeply Online, was derision towards the Rays for sending such a talented pitcher to the Pacific Coast.
But in a vacuum, the return for Snell was sensible. Snell is certainly a good pitcher, though it would also be fair to note that he isn’t quite an inner-inner-circle starting pitcher—although admittedly in a small sample across 2020, last season’s peripherals were a bit of a mixed bag, and if you prefer ERA-based measurement to FIP-based measurement, his 2019 ERA was an extremely pedestrian 4.29. By 2021 Steamer projections, Blake Snell should be the 15th best pitcher in baseball next season—certainly valuable, though a tier or two away from the Jacob deGrom level of ace. And it wasn’t as though the package the Padres sent to Tampa Bay was a turn-of-the-century Madden, “just throw in all of your spare parts and eventually it’ll add up to Randy Moss”-style deal. Luis Patiño, despite a lackluster cup of coffee with the Padres in 2020, is a highly-regarded prospect who is regarded by prospect-knowers smarter than I as a top 10-20 prospect. Francisco Mejia was recently a high-end catching prospect (though he may end up relegated to a corner outfield or designated hitter spot) who was traded just two years ago for premium relief pitcher Brad Hand, while Cole Wilcox and Blake Hunt are solid mid-tier lottery tickets.
But for the Tampa Bay Rays, this trade is every bit as appalling as the discourse indicates. And there is a difference between the Rays trading Blake Snell and if, say, the Baltimore Orioles had traded Blake Snell. For the Orioles, a team who wouldn’t sniff the 2021 postseason (and probably not the 2022 or 2023 versions, either) even if Blake Snell did turn into an American League version of Jacob deGrom, trading away current production for what could potentially be strong future production makes sense, because it is more likely that Luis Patiño would be on a good Orioles team (over the next six years) than that Snell would (over the next three). It is not only perfectly defensible for the Orioles to trade away its good players, but arguably a net positive for baseball (when the Orioles traded away Manny Machado, it meant we got to watch him in the postseason for the Los Angeles Dodgers).
But the Tampa Bay Rays are in their competitive window currently. The Rays were two wins away from a World Series championship last season, and the odds that they would repeat as AL East champions next season were higher than the odds that the Padres, even with Snell, would supplant the juggernaut Dodgers for an NL West crown. Even if Brandon Lowe and Randy Arozarena revert back into pumpkins in 2021, this is a Rays team that won more games than any other American League team last season. If they got the band back together, they could afford a little regression.
A theme of the first couple months of the MLB offseason is team owners citing COVID-related revenue dips as a reason that teams cannot afford to retain or to acquire new talent, which is followed by an equal reaction of another team—it was the Padres two days in a row, both with Snell and the acquisition of Yu Darvish from the Chicago Cubs—seemingly immune from revenue dips. The Cardinals have fallen closer to the former category so far, though they haven’t had a moment quite as egregious as trading a Snell or Darvish. The Kolten Wong non-tendering falls closer to the Cubs non-tendering Kyle Schwarber. But with Wong a free agent and with franchise icons Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright very realistic candidates to sign elsewhere, and with the Cardinals not linked in media reports to anything more than marginal free agents, it seems very unlikely that the Cardinals will enter the 2021 season with a more attractive roster than they finished the 2020 one.
While the season played on a permanent sour note, for the Cardinals and for baseball as a whole, the result of the season was hardly a disaster for the Cardinals. The sixteen-team playoff bracket makes a first-round exit look rather ignominious, but the Cardinals, had Major League Baseball retained its typical postseason structure, would have still earned a Wild Card berth (and, by virtue of having won their first game, theoretically would have advanced to probable pain against the Dodgers in the NLDS). But they were hardly a juggernaut, and now, three of the team’s ten best players by Wins Above Replacement (Wong, Wainwright, and Brad Miller) are no longer on the roster and a fourth, Dakota Hudson, is expected to miss the 2021 season due to injury.
The Cardinals will probably be a decent team in 2021, but are they capable of making the postseason? Sure, especially given that the Chicago Cubs appear to be motivated sellers despite having won a division crown in 2020. But they don’t seem to be making particular strides towards improving their position, merely hoping that the other three semi-serious division contenders self-destruct (admittedly, not the worst strategy given recent events). But at the same time, unlike the Rays or the Cubs, the Cardinals don’t seem to be particularly interested in extending their window by trading away one of their talented young players for prospects. Given their current position, I wouldn’t condone the latter strategy, but I would understand it.
I have long condoned the Cardinals’ relatively passive approach to team-building, partly thanks to an aesthetic preference for merely staying in contention rather than a compulsive desire to see the Cardinals go “all-in”. But this is a Cardinals team which suddenly has a paper-thin starting rotation, a bullpen filled with interesting but unproven relievers, unproven catchers, a suddenly thin infield, and no star outfielders. This isn’t a team you can pencil in for 85 wins and hope to catch lightning in a bottle to increase that total into playoff range—this is a team that could, as it currently stands, very realistically bring the Cardinals their first losing campaign in fourteen years.
And yet the Cardinals seem to be responding to their last season much as the 2015-16 Cardinals did to a 100-win season after which they lost their best position player and best pitcher within a week to a division rival. The 2016 Cardinals dropped 14 wins from the season before, which was still good enough to enter the 162nd game of the season contending for a playoff spot. If the Cardinals drop 14 wins off what would have been their 162-game pace in 2020, they would win 70 games. The Cardinals aren’t in a position to be passive, or they risk running into the worst of both worlds—not being good enough to contend today, but not loading up for a future window of victory.