Tampa Bay Rays: Making sense of the Blake Snell trade rumors

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 27: Blake Snell of the Tampa Bay Rays reacts as he is being taken out of the game during the sixth inning in Game Six of the 2020 MLB World Series. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 27: Blake Snell of the Tampa Bay Rays reacts as he is being taken out of the game during the sixth inning in Game Six of the 2020 MLB World Series. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

Coming off an AL Pennant, the Tampa Bay Rays are looking to establish long term success both on and off the field. Is trading their All-Star ace Blake Snell the right move, or a step in the wrong direction?

The Tampa Bay Rays are coming off their best season in their 22-year history. Principal Owner Stuart Sternberg and GM Erik Neander have taken what little resources they had and turned it into the MLB’s strongest farm system, according to MLB.com. They have achieved by drafting extremely well and traded other high-profile players in the past like James Shields, Evan Longoria, Chris Archer, and David Price over the years.

Now, that investment in youth over star power has paid dividends. Kevin Cash‘s analytical baseball mind was a perfect match for the Rays’ managerial role, and the organization has shown the ability to squeeze every ounce of talent out of their roster.

Their recent success has put the Rays at an important junction in their franchise’s history. They have legitimized a unique, analytics-driven style of play on MLB’s largest scale in 2021, and now have the rest of baseball’s attention. By routinely avoiding expensive free agent acquisitions and long-term extensions, they have accrued $68 million in operating income against their 27th-ranked revenue stream of $264 million.

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So what is their next move? Trading their ace Blake Snell, apparently.

According to multiple sources, they have let other teams know they are open to the idea of trading their ace. Snell signed a team friendly 5-year/$50 million extension in 2019 following his 2018 Cy Young campaign, but the Rays are apparently looking to offload him to recuperate some of their financial losses from the pandemic.

But after coming up just short of a World Series, why would they trade arguably their best player?

If they are truly trying to cut costs, then trading Snell makes sense from a financial standpoint. His salary increases from $10.5 million next season, to $16 million in 2023. While that is a fraction of what he would require should be a free agent, he still makes up 21.74% of their current payroll.

The only player making more in 2021 than Snell is veteran Ray Kevin Kiermaier. They’d obviously want to offload the $11.5 million they owe him, but he lacks the value necessary to get a strong return without eating part or all of his contract.

Furthermore, the absence of a salary cap in MLB validates trading Blake Snell. Because MLB runs a free market, poor teams cannot compete with the rich teams when pursuing free agents. In the NFL and NBA, salary caps level the playing field by putting a limit on how much a team can splurge.

Thus, the chances that the Rays can retain Blake Snell after his contract expires are slim-to-none. Other teams will be willing to give him many more dollars and years than the Rays can afford to.

While the MLB does put some restrictions on how much teams spend via the Debt Service Rule, most of the Tampa Bay Rays’ reluctance to spend is self-imposed. The Rays organization has made a commitment to producing the best on-the-field results with the least amount of money, regardless of how boring or ugly it looks.

MLB owners don’t have a fiduciary duty to increase the popularity of the sport. It is their prerogative to build their team however they choose. While new Mets owner Steve Cohen might want to spend big on free agents, Stuart Sternberg wants to play his version of Moneyball.

Despite its obvious on-the-field success, this approach creates a bad image for baseball off-the-field. It is a disservice to fans, and while Tampa Bay doesn’t have that many, trading away Blake Snell would just further exacerbate that issue.

Tampa Bay Rays
Tampa Bay Rays /

Tampa Bay Rays

There has never been more attention on the Rays than right now. They just won the AL Pennant, and came within two games of their first ever World Series title. They displayed their unique brand of baseball driven by analytics to a mainstream audience. They have a real chance to grow their fanbase here.

Instead, they are looking to trade away their former Cy Young award winning ace less than two months after questionably removing him for Game 6 of the World Series (resulting in their eventual series loss). If the Rays continue to offload their cornerstone players to save a buck, breakout talents that emerge from their farm system will view the big league club as a stepping stone to a big contract with another team.

At a certain point, the Rays front office needs to reward their key players to incentivize others in the organization to want to play in Tampa Bay long term.

Kevin Cash and Co. have done an exemplary job of building a culture of underdog players who function as a unit rather than individuals. But that will not last forever if they see their teammates get sent away because their team doesn’t want to pay them. You can only play the “small market” card so many times.

Beyond all the financial and ethical arguments, trading Blake Snell is a questionable move from a purely baseball standpoint.

If you find a suitor for Snell, who are your starters next year after Tyler Glasnow?

Charlie Morton signed with the Braves. Yonny Chirinos and Brendan McKay will still be injured on Opening Day in 2021. Ryan Yarbrough is an option, but they will be forced to spend money in free agency with or without Snell. They can take a chance on their prospects like Brent Honeywell and Shane McClanahan, but they still need battle tested veterans to eat innings.

The Rays proved you can build a championship-caliber team with just three starters (if you have an elite bullpen). But one starter? Good luck with that.

At the end of the day, the Tampa Bay Rays’ interest in trading Blake Snell might not be serious, and he will most likely end up staying in Tampa for the 2021 season unless the Rays receive an offer they can’t refuse. However, just the idea of trading a guy like Snell epitomizes the longstanding issues Tampa Bay has had building a steady, profitable organization.

They have been routinely keen on trading away their stars rather than investing in them. This has prevented them from building their brand around their star power, stunting their market growth.  However, this is just a small piece in a larger organizational conundrum. They struggle to sell tickets and build excitement around their organization, and their analytical brand of baseball does not help them in that regard. So, what is the solution for the Rays?

Is it a new stadium? Stuart Sternberg has tried to invest in a new stadium to keep the team in St. Petersburg, but all recent proposals have fallen through. Since then, Sternberg has shifted his focus to a potential split season between Tampa and Montreal. The idea is to lower the cost of building a new stadium in half, while increasing television revenue and attendance by bringing their team to an established baseball market in Montreal. We’ll see how that plays out.

Is it the lack of a salary cap? Having a salary cap would level the playing field and enable teams like the Rays to compete with the rich teams in free agency. Then, they would have a competitive advantage to extend or retain their stars that emerge from their farm system. However, the introduction of a salary cap in major league baseball is more unlikely than the Rays giving Blake Snell the extension he deserves.

Is it their ownership? Sternberg has routinely shown he favors saving money even when he has some to spend. Their payroll in 2020 was just over $50 million, while they had $68 million in operating income. This implies they had capital that they chose not to spend, regardless of their limitations. Do they need a new owner committed to taking the Rays brand to the next level by taking a risk and investing big bucks into their stars? That might be a start.

It’s easy to sit back and criticize an owner of a small market team when they make decisions like trading away superstars (just talk to a Red Sox fan). As a baseball fan, these types of moves go against the grain of what we know. It is frustrating to see But in reality, owning a team like the Rays is like owning a small business. Even though you might have the best product, you are still expected to compete with Walmart and Amazon. While you might have a good fiscal year, it still might not be the best move to expand your business.

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For the Tampa Bay Rays, the success they’ve built has come from their unique approach to the business of baseball. No matter how frustrating it is to see routinely flip star players, there is no denying it has worked on the field. Their baseball personnel and coaching staff are among the best in baseball, and they somehow turn every bargain bin player they acquire into legitimate professional contributors.

By making Blake Snell available on the trade market, they might be thinking “don’t fix what ain’t broke.”