Extend Them All

Today’s piece was very long, and ranged into several aspects of the Cubs’ present and future. Its main thrust, though, was a detailed proposal for an extension to which the team should sign each of Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, and Anthony Rizzo. Here’s the Bryant entry, as a taste of it all.


Kris Bryant

Current 2021 Salary: $19.5 million

Proposed Contract: 7 years, $154 million

Breakdown: 2021-25: $23 million annually. 2026-27: $18 million annually. 2028: $17-million club option, with $3-million buyout. Opt-out after 2023.

Ages: 29-35, with option year at age 36

Look, Scott Boras is fearless, and Bryant’s made a zillion dollars already, not only on the field, but through endorsements. Maybe the player and agent choose to gamble that Bryant has the kind of healthy, MVP-caliber season he needs to have to restore his perceived value to that level and earn an Anthony Rendon-sized deal in free agency. Bryant’s going to hit free agency at the same age at which Rendon did; this deal asks him to take $91 million less over the same term than the Angels gave Rendon.

That said, were I Bryant (or Boras), I would take this deal, and I don’t think it’s implausible that they will take such a deal. Rendon was consistently excellent for his final three seasons with the Nationals—far above any level Bryant has attained in a full season since 2017. He was a true free agent. As opposed to the Bogaerts deal, Rendon’s was signed during a winter in which spending surged league-wide, and since which a global pandemic has dented the market a bit. The opt-out lets Bryant keep a good-sized chunk of upside, too, especially since the deal is front-loaded. Most of all, though, he’s battled injuries and outright failure over the last three seasons, and he has as much to lose from a bad season as to gain from a good one.


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Here’s an excerpt of the multi-faceted piece I wrote in the wake of last week’s Fernando Tatís, Jr. extension. I tried to dig fairly deeply into the contract itself, the player, and what it all means for baseball’s future (lots of good things!).

Tatís is the business baseball needs to be in, for the next decade. He has the transformational, transcendent, incandescent marketability you find once each generation, and there is never a guarantee that your sport gets that superstar. Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Ken Griffey, Jr. are the only players in baseball history who had an impact as profound as the one Tatís could have over the next (say) 14 years. He has Mike Trout’s tools, Javier Báez’s playing style, Bryce Harper’s swagger and charisma, and he’s cooler than any of those guys. If any of that verges on hyperbole, consider that itself an illustration of the effect Tatís has. 

One of the concerns raised by some is that having Tatís bound to San Diego (one of the smallest media markets in the majors, outside the top 25 in the country) will minimize his impact. I think that inverts reality. Tatís will make San Diego as big as it needs to be. The heavy lean toward Los Angeles, when it comes to pro sports in Southern California, will be weakened a bit. National media cameras will find their way to San Diego, and the young fans to whom Tatís holds such unique appeal will find him and the Padres online, even from 2,000 miles away. He’s the first star-caliber Latinx player the Padres have had since Adrián González, who was Mexican-American and born in San Diego, but whom the team traded in his prime, rather than give him a contract considerably smaller than this one. Before González, the only Latinx star the team had ever kept for more than three seasons was Benito Santiago. 

Tatís will make the Padres a beloved brand in Mexico, in the Dominican Republic, and throughout the United States, not only by being great (and a part of great teams, as we’ll soon discuss) but via the huge marketing power he already has. He has national endorsement deals with Gatorade and Adidas, and is the cover man for this year’s version of MLB: The Show. It’s not crucial, but is a nice bonus, that he’s doing it all in the stylish brown-and-gold threads the Padres have rolled out over the last two years. Kids in Texas, Florida, and New York are going to wear his jersey. They can’t morph into the Yankees, but there is no reason the Padres can’t be the Cardinals or the Braves of the West, which would mean a major national footprint and a lasting rise in revenue.
It’s also a big deal that this is such a big deal. The only two contracts that have guaranteed players more money to play in MLB were signed by Trout and Mookie Betts, each within a year or two of free agency. Tatís was still four years from being able to sell his services to the highest bidder, and he faced no particular pressure to forgo that privilege. The Padres brought him up on Opening Day in 2019, rather than manipulate his service time in the style of previous teams holding down elite prospects (most notably Harper, Kris Bryant, and Acuña) to ensure themselves an extra season of control. Doing that put Tatís in a position to demand this kind of price at such a tender age, but far more importantly, it reinforces the fact that the Padres profited from bringing him up, rather than losing anything by doing so. It’s inexpressibly good for baseball for a 22-year-old to achieve this payday, rather than having to wait until he was 25 or 26, and (perhaps, alas) already slightly past his true prime. It’s a promising development for the future of labor dynamics in the game. It’s great marketing toward young athletes choosing among multiple professional opportunities. It raises the credibility of the sport for casual fans.

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Arenado Escapes Colorado

What follows is a free sample of Penning Bull. This is the full post subscribers received this morning, less than 12 hours after news of Nolan Arenado being traded to the Cardinals first hit Twitter. If you like what you read, please consider subscribing. You can click the ‘Buy Now’ button, on the righthand side of your computer screen or at the bottom of your mobile page.

Let’s start with this: If you want to argue that baseball (and especially the economy of the game) is basically broken, I won’t fight you on it. The balance of the evidence favors that conclusion. However, in diametric opposition to takes that filled up my Twitter timeline last night, I will argue firmly that this trade does not add a datum to that argument, nor support it in any form. This is not a Baseball problem; this is a Rockies problem.

The thing that made people so mad about this trade was not that it happened, but that the Cardinals gave up virtually nothing to get it done, and that the Rockies even chipped in a quarter of the money owed to Nolan Arenado. Those have been telling indicators in recent money-driven deals, so the unease is understandable. The Cubs got far too little in return for Yu Darvish, because the market looked at his three remaining seasons of moderately expensive team control with irrational disfavor. The Red Sox traded Mookie Betts too eagerly, while sending along David Price and half the money they still owed him, to get under the competitive-balance tax threshold. Going back a few years, the Marlins dealt Giancarlo Stanton to New York for almost nothing, just to be shot of most of his contract. 

This situation is different. The Rockies’ lack of leverage didn’t have much to do with the money they still owed Arenado. Until Friday, he was due to make $199 million over the six seasons left on his deal. That’s a bit rich, and they’d certainly have had to pay it down somewhat in order to get a good return for him under other circumstances, but the fact that even trimming 25 percent off of that cost didn’t net them any of St. Louis’s top 10 prospects has very little to do with his salary.

Rather, the Rockies made their own, unique hash of things, and this was their comeuppance. By his own admission, Colorado GM Jeff Bridich ensured that the extension Arenado signed two years ago included an opt-out clause after 2021.

“I was the one who actually pushed for that opt-out,” Bridich said at a postmortem for the 2019 season, by which time the relationship between the star and the front office was already cooling quickly. “To Nolan’s credit, he didn’t have a ton of interest in that initially being in there. It wasn’t a priority of his for it to be in there. I was the one who thought it might be a good idea.”

Obviously, it was not a good idea. The very notion of a team executive pushing for the inclusion of an opt-out—which, as we’ve talked about before, essentially turns the years after the decision point in a deal into a multi-year player option—is baffling. Maybe, had Bridich never mentioned it, Arenado’s team would eventually have brought the negotiations around to that subject, but it’s clear that Bridich proactively sought to include the clause, which was the first step on the team’s road to ruin.

Next, the team made Arenado mad. They not only had a miserable 2019, but showed no real commitment to winning in the short or medium term, and it led to public fractures between Arenado and Bridich. At that point, a doomsday clock started ticking toward that opt-out clause, at the end of 2021. 

Now, just nine months before that clock will hit zero, the Rockies have no path to serious contention in the NL West. In fact, the continued success of the Dodgers and the aggressive progress of the Padres, plus the rising threat of the fast-rebuilding Giants, has put a return to the postseason even further out of reach. It will be several years and at least one front-office housecleaning before the Rockies can beat those three times, and at the moment, the Diamondbacks (while not much better on the field) are run much more intelligently, so I wouldn’t pick Colorado even over them. 

That left Colorado with no choice but to trade Arenado now. There was no chance Arenado would stick around beyond 2021 to suffer through what lies ahead of this team, even if opting out would ultimately have cost him several million dollars. There was no chance that the Rockies would let him leave for nothing, either. I can’t think of a trade in which the seller had so little leverage, and the buyer so much, including the ones mentioned above. Under these circumstances, the Rockies were locked in as the losers of the deal, and aborting the deal was not possible. The negotiations were just a sentencing hearing for Bridich and company.

On the other hand, Arenado himself makes out like gangbusters here. Let’s quickly review the contract he had in place, before this deal. He was due to make $199 million through 2026. For each of the next four seasons, he’s scheduled to earn $35 million, before his salary steps down to $32 million in 2025 and $27 million in 2026. He had a full no-trade clause, which he’s waiving to allow this deal to go through. He also had that opt-out clause, which effectively means that the final five years and $164 million of the deal were a player option for him. Under baseball’s current economic conditions, and hazarding a guess at what the new CBA might look like when it takes effect next winter, it was very likely that the earnings-maximizing choice would be to exercise that option and preserve the deal. Arenado didn’t want to do that, because of the Rockies’ rudderlessness, but it would have been the thing most likely to bring him the greatest financial benefit. 

This deal gets him out of that conundrum. That’s the primary benefit that accrues to him. He’s joining a team with a clear plan for short- and long-term competitiveness, whose front office (mostly) avoids alienating and offending its best players. He can afford to make the choice that earns him the most money, without making himself miserable in the process.

Since the Cardinals don’t want to pay him $35 million per year on the front end of the deal, though, Arenado has agreed to defer some of his earnings. We don’t know the terms of the deferrals yet, but it’s safe to assume that it takes the sting out of the nominal salary for St. Louis, even after the money the Rockies are sending them is exhausted. In exchange for that concession, Arenado gets a second opt-out, after 2022. That’s a huge secondary benefit he gains in this transaction, because at that point, we’ll all know the lay of the land for the next half-decade. A new CBA will be in place, the market will have stabilized in a post-COVID world, and Arenado will have two full seasons’ worth of information about his new team and its inner workings. He can make a much better-informed, less conflicted decision about his future after 2022 than he was likely to be able to make after this season.

The Cardinals got a lot in this deal, too, in addition to Arenado himself. The deferrals are one helpful thing. The money Colorado is including is another. Finally, the team and Arenado have agreed to tack a guaranteed salary of $15 million for 2027 onto the end of the deal. That helps compensate Arenado for waiving his no-trade clause and for accepting the deferrals, for sure, but it also helps St. Louis. 

Right now, the Cardinals aren’t inclined to spend aggressively enough to worry about the competitive-balance tax. That could change, though. It probably won’t change because the team makes a sudden decision to start shelling out 20 percent more in annual salaries, but once the dust settles on that new CBA, it’s possible that the luxury tax (or even a true salary cap) could come down to the range where they already feel comfortable spending. This restructuring not only minimizes St. Louis’s upfront costs, while they wait for vaccines and time to allow them to start stuffing Busch Stadium again, but protects them from eventually being hamstrung by Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt’s salaries. 

For competitive-balance tax purposes, money sent to one team by another to help cover the contract of a player can be subtracted from the total value of that contract, when calculating its annual average value. That average is the space the player takes up under the tax threshold, even if they’re paid wildly differently at various points in the deal. (Deferrals, when significant, can be used to tweak the value of the deal for those purposes, too, but let’s assume for the moment that Arenado’s deferrals won’t make a difference there.) Subtract the Rockies’ contributions, then, and add the seventh year at a salary roughly half the average of the rest of it, and the Cardinals are taking on Arenado for seven years and $164 million. That’s a perfectly palatable $23.4 million per year. Even if a salary cap comes into being, or the luxury tax thresholds come down, the Cardinals can carry Arenado at that salary, keep Goldschmidt on his expensive deal, extend Jack Flaherty and Dylan Carlson, and still have some flexibility for building depth around that core. 

If neither thing happens, then the extra year still keeps Arenado happy. If he ages pretty well, and barring further major disruptions to the finances of the game, Arenado would probably be pleased to earn $15 million for his age-36 season, and the Cardinals will probably not mind it, either. Plus, the added money turns the opt-out after this season into a decision about six years and $179 million, and the one after 2022 into a decision about five years and $144 million. Arenado gains some security, in the event that he does end up exercising his player option and preserving the deal both times.

Finally: let’s talk about just what the Cardinals are adding, in an immediate, on-field sense. Arenado is one of the five best third basemen in the league, at a time when third base is as deep as it has ever been. His numbers have been inflated by Coors Field throughout his career, but the hangover effect that drags down Rockies’ road performances has dragged him down some, too. He’s a brilliant fielder, bettered only by Oakland’s Matt Chapman. The Cardinals’ incumbent options at third base were scarcely above replacement, too, so Arenado’s addition should have maximal impact.

There are things I love about Arenado. He’s a joy to watch, especially in the field, with his extremely kinetic, fearless brand of third-base play. He will make strong throws from almost impossible positions, and rarely miss his mark with them. He will charge into the stands, or range far into the shortstop hole and dive, and he will come up with the ball with stunning regularity. At the plate, he’s not subtle. He launches himself at the ball. He swings often, and gets it in the air. Considering those principles, he maintains a high contact rate, because his hand-eye coordination is just that good. It’s fun.

That’s not to suggest that this acquisition is without risk, or that he doesn’t have weaknesses. He’s painfully slow-footed. He still turns in fine baserunning, but it’s more along the lines of knowing his limitations than wisely pressing the issue. In 2020, the only slower third basemen were Maikel Franco and Todd Frazier, according to Sprint Speed. I’m not a devotee of that stat, but Arenado’s figure there matches the eye test when he’s running. 

As long as he maintains the explosion that makes him so great afield, lead in his feet isn’t a huge deal. To have lost two steps before age 30 is a bit worrisome, though, not least because he’s also battled some injuries recently. Playing as hard as he does, things eventually happen, but since Arenado is unlikely to stop playing hard, that risk of lingering or new injury has to be baked into his outlook.

Then there’s his offense. As I said, he’s fun, because he can consistently swing for the fences, yet adjust and make contact when fooled or in a defensive count. Still, if he’s going to age well with the stick (especially outside of Coors), he’s going to have to make some adjustments. Curiously, for a guy with perennially impressive power numbers, he’s never been one to generate high-end exit velocities, either in terms of his maximum or in terms of consistently hitting it at least 95 miles per hour. Now that he’ll call one of the league’s least homer-friendly parks home, he might need to become more selective, swing more efficiently, and start making sure his best contact yields the results he’s looking for often enough.

Overall, my concerns about Arenado are mild. He’s going to be a good player for the next few years, given decent health. His DRC+ of 115 during pandemic ball doesn’t worry me; he was extremely consistent over the prior three seasons, at roughly 137. He slots nicely into the heart of the Cardinals’ batting order, alongside Goldschmidt.

Beyond those two, I do harbor some questions about St. Louis’s offense. Dylan Carlson should have the hiccups out of the way, and looked very good at the end of 2020, so pencil him in right in front of Arenado and Goldschmidt in the lineup. Still, that’s not a murderer’s row. Reports indicate that Yadier Molina will be back as the catcher, which helps their run-prevention projections in my estimation, but he’s starting to show his age at the plate. Tommy Edman and Matt Carpenter don’t form an especially intimidating potential tandem at second base. Paul DeJong had a rough year in 2020, and I’m much less certain that he’ll rebound than I am about Arenado. Dexter Fowler is aging. Harrison Bader is wildly inconsistent. I don’t trust Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, or Justin Williams to reliably round out the outfield. 

On the other hand, Arenado not only shores up the lineup, but should help the team turn batted balls into outs. If the Cardinals win the NL Central—and this move does make them narrow favorites, unless we find out that they’re giving up more than has been indicated so far—they’ll do so primarily as a pitching-and-defense outfit. Arenado and Goldschmidt are great, because they elevate the team defense, as well as being capable of carrying the heavy load the rest of the offense is likely to place on their shoulders.

I’ll break down the Rockies’ side of this more once we have clarity on all the players they’re getting, and on exactly how much they’re sending. For now, the top of this piece suffices, on that score. Nolan Arenado got a ton of value in this deal. The Cardinals were big winners, too. The Rockies are the big losers, but not because they claimed not to be able to afford Arenado, and not because baseball is broken. They made a series of terrible decisions, and got what they deserved. Arenado is now playing for a better team, in a bigger baseball market. This isn’t bad for baseball; it’s just bad for Jeff Bridich.

A Bell, a Snell

Here is the full text of the latest edition of Penning Bull, sent to subscribers this morning. If you want more of this style of analysis, please consider signing up, using the Buy Now button on the page. (It’s on the righthand side, if you’re on a computer, and at the bottom of the page, if you’re on a mobile device.) I’ll be breaking down the Yu Darvish trade, and the Padres’ signing of Ha-Seong Kim, in the first issue of 2021, sometime this weekend.

On Christmas Eve, the Nationals traded right-handed pitchers Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean to the Pirates for first baseman Josh Bell.

The Pirates have been extremely clear about their intentions since firing Ray Searage, Clint Hurdle, and Neal Huntington last fall. They’re going for a scorched-Earth rebuild, and given their tight-fisted ownership and small-market status, that puts them on a long path back to real contention. They had the worst record in the big leagues in 2020, and will probably be similarly moribund for the next two years. Since Bell is due to hit free agency after 2022, GM Ben Cherington had no qualms about dealing him. The question was what kind of return Pittsburgh could get, for a player who has only looked like more than a second-division first baseman for about two-thirds of one season over the course of his career.

On the Nationals side, meanwhile, 2020 was a blunted but unpleasant blow to the ego. Sure, it was a 60-game season, in the shadow of a pandemic. It shouldn’t even have been played. No team was less motivated to push past the weirdness and ugliness of it all than was Washington, since they were the defending champions, and that showed. Still, if they believed they had rightfully or semi-permanently surpassed the Braves in the NL East, that notion was emphatically dispelled. The club re-signed Stephen Strasburg after his virtuosic 2019, at enormous expense, only to see him develop carpal-tunnel syndrome. Strasburg missed almost the whole season, and it’s hard to have much confidence that he’ll return to his previous level for a duration that will truly justify the seven-year deal Mike Rizzo gave him.

More foreboding still, the team’s odd decision to patch together an infield around Trea Turner backfired, and their offensive future was thrown much into doubt. Ryan Zimmerman opted out because of COVID-19, but that really wasn’t the problem. Rather, Howie Kendrick battled injuries; Starlin Castro was sidelined for almost the whole campaign; Eric Thames was a dud; Asdrúbal Cabrera finally had a subpar season; and Carter Kieboom and Luis García blew their chances to claim long-term spots, at least for the time being. Now, Kendrick has retired, Adam Eaton has returned to the White Sox in free agency, and prior to this trade, the only players the team could pencil in for above-average offense are their superstars, Turner and Juan Soto. 

It should be clear, then, that this deal can’t mark the end of Rizzo’s additions for the winter. He has a team too good to waste, with Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin (and, yes, Strasburg), Soto and Turner, and a handful of solid supporting actors. Britt Ghiroli, of The Athletic, wrote in her article about the trade: “In a perfect world, the Nationals would add two bats this offseason, and that is much more of a possibility now.” With all due respect to Ghiroli and to the sometime champions, I think that in a perfect world, they’d add four bats this winter. Assuming (as seems safe) that the team’s enthusiasm about García is undimmed by his rushed, rocky rookie season, three would be sufficient, but in that case, Bell needs to be the second-best of the set. 

As Ghiroli also noted in that piece, Soto moved to right field late in 2020, setting the stage for the team to pursue a left fielder this winter. There are plenty of available bat-first guys whose major limitation is being confined to left field on the market right now, so Rizzo still has a clear path to getting this right. The trickier thing will be finding a way to either dramatically increase the confidence of all involved in Kieboom (including, perhaps, Kieboom himself), or upgrade third base, too. 

For now, since all of that is speculation, let’s set it aside, and consider Bell purely on his merits. He’s been a compelling figure for as long as he’s been a pro ball player, plus an extra five or six months. In the spring of 2011, when he was one of the top prep prospects (and the top pure hitter at that level) in a historic class, Bell sent a letter to all 30 teams, asking them not to draft him. The son of college professors, he claimed to be irrevocably committed to playing college ball at the University of Texas. The Pirates, though, took Gerrit Cole with the first overall pick, and then, with the first pick of the second day of the draft, took Bell. (Perhaps they were just rolling the dice there. Perhaps it’s relevant that Cole and Bell were both advised by Scott Boras. Perhaps, a lot of things.) They signed him for $5 million, which (in that final year before the league hardened rules around draft bonuses) wasn’t even the kind of eye-popping money other teams had believed might tempt Bell and his family.

Fairly quickly, though, it became clear that Bell wouldn’t stick in a corner outfield spot. He became a first baseman, and has been pretty bad even at that position, to date. He had one injury-marred season to begin his career, but then embarked on a steady, reasonably rapid climb to the big leagues. He hit plenty in the minors, with one exception: he never really found the power for which one hopes, from a first baseman. 

Josh Bell, MiLB Stats (2012-16)


It was never a question of him being big enough, strong enough, or even generating sufficiently hard contact. He does all of that, and is sufficiently balanced (though not Chipper Jones, or anything) as a switch-hitter. The questions were about, as a left-hander facing righties, getting the ball in the air often enough, and, as a right-hander facing lefties, hitting it hard consistently enough to make up for a few more whiffs.

It’s jarring to see what a transformation the matriculation to the majors has demanded of such a polished, well-rounded hitter. Bell posted above-average DRC+ figures in each of his first three seasons, but that’s above-average only by the standards of the whole league. For a first baseman, he fell a bit short. The Pirates successfully coaxed him into trading contact for lift and power, on both sides of the plate, for most of 2019, and it yielded a breakout that made him an All-Star and paved the road to this trade. On balance, though, in a similar sample, one can see Bell straining to be a different kind of hitter since rising to join the Pirates, and while it might be the kind of hitter one must be to thrive in the modern game, it’s clear that it doesn’t come naturally to him.

Josh Bell, MLB Stats (2016-20)


Bell’s 2020 demands a bit of a mulligan. In the shortened, chaotic season, he never found his swing, from either side. His strikeout rate shot to an uncharacteristic level from which ameliorative regression is inevitable. He’s still a patient hitter. He still possesses the ability to hit the ball hard. On the other hand, the consistent penchant for pulling and elevating the ball, which he found for a prolonged period in 2019, again vanished from his profile. 

The Nationals are dedicated to the idea that hitting coach Kevin Long can unlock that for Bell again. That’s not a wholly unreasonable notion. Long is one of the game’s more accomplished and respected gurus, albeit not one of the vanguard types becoming so popular in the age of tech-based player development. Maintaining two distinct swings, especially in an era of rapidly evolving pitching strategies, will probably remain a barrier to Bell fully tapping the potential of his overall profile. Still, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine him hitting .270, with a strong walk rate and 30 homers. That doesn’t solve all the problems facing the Nationals this winter, or over the next two years, but it gives them a chance to capture upside, and this acquisition should keep their options open as they try to deepen their lineup.

That last bit is worth digging lightly into, and also helps us circle back to the Pirates’ side of this. There are, basically, two different kinds of decent prospects a team can acquire in trade, anymore: overaged guys with high floors but low ceilings, who no longer fit their incumbent organization; and far-off guys with plus tools but almost no professional experience. Elite prospects, with obvious star potential and substantial track records against high-level competition (even collegiate competition, but especially anything above High-A ball), are essentially unavailable. So are many in the vast middle class of legitimate prospects: guys who have reached the upper levels, but still have certain question marks left; and those who have well-rounded profiles but have only played one year of full-season ball. 

Prospects have huge value in the modern, money-obsessed, youth-slanted game. One either accepts damaged goods, or hunts at the very bottom and very top of the professional ladder for guys whose teams aren’t in position to assign them the full value associated with their talent. The Pirates selected one of each kind of player in this deal. That doesn’t mean it’ll pan out for them—in fact, you’ll go broke pretty quickly betting against Mike Rizzo winning trades. However, Crowe has a well-rounded arsenal, throws hard enough to be competitive without exceptional command, and (despite having the polish to be used in the big leagues right away) still has minor-league options. Yean won’t turn 20 until June, was a hot name around the trade deadline in 2019, and has three pitches that could turn out to be above-average. Cherington did well, considering what Bell has (and hasn’t) done to this point in his career. Yet, Washington held onto its key trade assets, giving them multiple ways to push Bell to the fifth spot in their batting order, where he’s a good bet, rather than a risky one.

On Sunday night, the Padres traded right-handed pitchers Luis Patiño and Cole Wilcox and catchers Francisco Mejía and Blake Hunt to the Rays for left-handed pitcher Blake Snell.

A.J. Preller is playing a different game than most of his rivals, and it’s making things look awfully easy. The free-agent market was soft for two winters in a row, allowing Preller to sign Eric Hosmer, then Manny Machado, in addition to some secondary pieces. Last winter, as the market got back to nominal normalcy, the Padres’ only big signing was Drew Pomeranz, but Preller still got aggressive in trades.

That was under different circumstances. Well-documented trends and phenomena had made the talent market an aggressive GM’s sandbox, but the pandemic and the season it wrought flung the gates open in a way that no simple economic pressures could have. Teams already disinclined to take chances became outright averse to the costs of winning. It was hard for some to decide how seriously they should even take the 2020 campaign. Preller, free of any such ambivalence, ripped through the league at midseason, with trades to upgrade his rotation, bullpen, catching corps and DH slot. 

Now, with teams claiming (some half-credibly, but all in bad faith) to have suffered staggering losses during 2020 and clamoring to save money, the path has grown wider still. The Rays might well have traded Blake Snell this winter, even if there hadn’t been a season without fans in the stands, and even if they had reached the World Series under normal financial conditions. In that alternate reality, though, they’d have had much less urgency, which would have lent them more leverage. Surely, too, had they dealt Snell in that imaginary marketplace, they would have had more potential buyers, steering the price of a deal higher.

This is the world we have, though, and in this world, Preller had the Rays over a barrel. Of course, the Rays always want you to think that’s the situation, and (like so many perceptions, even insider ones) it’s a dangerous oversimplification. The idea that the Rays have to make a trade, to cut salary and accommodate their perpetual, profit-conscious contention window, is what keeps trade partners engaged, when (perhaps) they ought to walk away. The Rays are good at the complex transaction that is a modern baseball trade. They’re good at the poker game involved—at slow-playing but never wasting an advantage, and at pouncing when an opponent overplays their hand. They’re good at the newfangled stuff, using analytics to identify trade targets and to help their own players maximize their potential, but they’re even better at old-fashioned pro scouting, of the kind that flips a close trade from a likely loss to a surprising win. 

None of this is to suggest that Preller should, in fact, have passed up this opportunity. On balance, the Padres did extraordinarily well. They needed to reinforce their rotation, after Mike Clevinger underwent Tommy John surgery, and Snell was a major reinforcement. In exchange for a pitcher with a recent Cy Young Award in his trophy case and three years of relatively affordable team control remaining, San Diego gave up significant talent, but nothing that majorly weakens them in the short term, and nothing that will make the team rue this deal, as long as Snell pitches the way they expect him to pitch.

With Snell, that caveat weighs a bit heavier than it does for other top-tier starters. He’s dominated for prolonged stretches during his career, but he’s also had significant bouts with inconsistency. He’s not elite when it comes to repeating his delivery, and especially his release point. He’s battled hittability at some times, and wildness at others. His pitch characteristics point to a pitcher even better than his track record. As an employee of another team once told me, though, if the Rays have had a pitcher a while, no one else who acquires them expects them to find a new gear.

All of this is probably too much fretting over a more-or-less front-of-the-rotation starter. Let me add one more nit to my pickings, though. In October, I wrote at Baseball Prospectus about Snell having lost some of the rising action on his fastball in 2020, and the way hitters were racking up hits against him on that pitch. Though he’s just 28, and though I think it reasonable to make allowances for the strangeness of the season and the fact that he was returning from an injury that hung over him throughout the prolonged offseason, the fact is that that vertical movement is almost as important as velocity, and (like velocity) once pitchers begin to lose it, they rarely recover it. 

Snell leaned more on his changeup last year, and it looks like a pitch with which he might consistently induce weak contact. Again, he has two quality breaking pitches. There are solid options for him to remain a good starting pitcher even if he can’t dominate with his high-spin heat. It’s just that, when a need for such significant adjustments is peeking over the horizon for a given player, we have to admit considerable uncertainty about their near future.

Ok, enough rain-cloud stuff. On the whole, Snell is a terrific addition to what was already a modestly high-upside rotation, and since Clevinger was more in the Snell mold (excellent when right, but inconsistent and incomplete, even as he established himself) than on a true ace level, he’s a perfectly adequate replacement for what injury stole from San Diego in the fall. With open questions about Chris Paddack’s development (his sophomore season was rough, and made highly salient some preexisting questions about his ability to spin the ball), Mackenzie Gore’s readiness, and Dinelson Lamet’s health, acquiring Snell didn’t banish risk from the Padres’ portfolio, but it pushed their potential ceiling higher. 

The Rays, meanwhile, got a pitching prospect over whom everyone would be mooning more openly, I think, but for the fact that he was second fiddle in his own farm system until the trade. Patiño just turned 21 in October. Last spring, he was a consensus top-25 prospect in all of baseball, and while his 17 innings with the Padres this year didn’t sparkle, it was easy to see what generated that hype. He throws 97 miles per hour, has good command of a nasty slider, and will fool lefties at times with a usable changeup that comes in almost 10 miles per hour slower than the heat. I tend to think Tampa will turn him into a five-and-fly starter, minimizing the usage (but also the exposure) of the change and asking him to dominate with the elite spin on the heat and the slider’s devastating snap, but he’s so young that there remains a chance for an elite pitcher. That hinges on changeup development; his short-term utility does not.

Meanwhile, after re-signing Mike Zunino earlier this winter, the Rays got a platoon partner for him in the deal, in the form of constant rumor-mill darling Mejía. Though this is only the second time he’s actually been traded, the former Cleveland farmhand has been bandied about in all kinds of deals for much of his professional career. He had a 50-game hitting streak in the minors in 2016, part of an age-20 breakout season that had people dreaming big on him. He’s a switch-hitter with an aggressive approach, unique swings on both sides of the dish, and obvious tools, but so far, the ascent of his star has been slower and less dazzling than prospect people anticipated. 

He’s a catcher, but so far, he’s not a good one. The defensive standards and demands of catching are higher than ever, and Mejía is a little guy (5-foot-8, under 200 pounds when properly conditioning himself) who struggles to frame well. The Rays might have ideas the Padres either didn’t have or couldn’t sell to Mejía. Tampa is good at that kind of thing. For instance, there is a new, more kinetic style of framing many traditionally weaker framers are using to find success, and it’s perfectly suited to an undersized guy like Mejía. That doesn’t mean it will actually work, though—not least because Mejía has sometimes seemed insufficiently eager to learn in that area. 

In the only sustained opportunity he got, in late 2019, Mejía did hit pretty well at the big-league level. Still, it’s not clear whether there’s still All-Star upside here, thanks to the defensive deficiencies, the difficulty of maintaining two swings while balancing a catcher’s other duties, and the fits-and-starts arc of his last few years, when the road before him seemed so smoothly paved. That’s why he was available. His potential is why the Rays wanted him.

Patiño and Mejía would have been a light, but not wholly unfair return for Snell, given the money the Rays wanted to move and the level of esteem in which the industry rightly holds the young right-hander. Thus, as usual, we have to give the Rays credit. They did the old Bob Howsam thing here: just keep circling a deal, coming down from an initially bonkers ask, then weedling an extra player out of a trade partner. There are no guarantees about those throw-in guys, but the Rays, like Howsam, have a very good track record with them. Wilcox was a third-round pick in the 2020 Draft, but had a lot of success in a tough collegiate conference, got a big signing bonus, and has plenty of supporters in prospect circles. Hunt had a fantastic showing in fall instructional league, looking like a two-way threat behind the plate. He’s already played in High-A, despite not having gotten to play anywhere in 2020, so he could be a quick riser, too.

The Rays drew heat for this deal. I understand why. On the surface, it’s a cynical, callous move, and a symbol of the cheap way they do business. I don’t agree, though. Whether because I’m too swayed by their recent success with players similar to each of the ones they acquired, or am less concerned with Patiño’s 2020 than others, or am just less sure of Snell than most, I view this is as a smart and aggressive deal by the Rays, and I suspect that it will help them achieve their goals, which run more toward contending for the AL East title every year than toward cyclically chasing championships. 

I’m also, notably, more sympathetic to that mindset than most of my current peers in the internet baseball-writing sphere. I think the highest good a team can give its fans is an interminable string of fun, simmering summers, leading into high-heart rate autumns. Flags do fly forever, but (little though some care to admit it), you peer up at them less with each passing year. It’s not ignoble to strive to be very good every year, even at the cost of being historically great in any one or two.

The Padres, though: wow. We’ll get to the rest of their doings in the first Penning Bull of the new year, but this deal, alone, captures what we all love about Preller. He gave up a lot, but in exchange, he made a very good team meaningfully better—not just for 2021, but over the next three years. If you can add someone as talented as Snell and have team control of him for three seasons, you should eagerly give up a lot to do it. 

Len Kasper Goes South

Today’s edition of the newsletter is about Len Kasper’s surprising departure from the Cubs’ TV booth, to take the helm of the White Sox’s radio broadcast. Here’s an excerpt:

Personally, I experienced the news mostly as a longtime Cubs fan, for whom Kasper has become a staple of spring and summer. Neither football nor basketball fans can fully understand what a great local broadcaster means to an MLB team, especially once they’ve been in place for over a decade, but this is a community of baseball lovers, so I need hardly explain it to you. 

A broadcaster has an exponentially gentler aging curve than a player. There’s no default expectation that a broadcaster will move on, at some point, the way a player inevitably will. Most importantly, a broadcaster’s career can stretch three times as long as even the most durable player’s. For all of those reasons, a broadcaster can first shape, then refine, then embody a fan culture, changing the very fabric of a franchise across three generations. 

Kasper’s unpretentious wit, threaded with his intimate knowledge of both the history and the modern makeup of the game; makes him a great game-caller. He keeps the game at the center of his show, but lets in enough levity and breadth of interest to keep dry or low-stakes contests lively. He balances a decorous style and objective eye with an unfeigned emotional connection to his subject, which lets fans feel that he wants the team to win (almost) as much as they do. In short, I view him as the best play-by-play broadcaster in baseball, save possibly Tigers radio man Dan Dickerson, and (for the very reasons given above) we should pay as much attention to a broadcaster of that stature changing teams as we do to players, managers, and executives doing the same.

For 16 years, Kasper and his partners (first, Bob Brenly, and then Jim Deshaies, who was perhaps the pitch-perfect fit for Kasper’s style) kept the Cubs watchable in bad years, and made them thoroughly likable in good times. At all times, Kasper was a bulwark against mounting pressure for a historically unique and almost countercultural franchise to assimilate into a corporatized, sanitized big-league baseball culture. Kasper has been willing to change with the times, but never eager to embrace the depersonalization of the game.

Now, just when it’s needed most, that bulwark is gone.

You can read more, including thoughts on what really grates on Cubs fans in the wake of this move, and on the importance of the game’s best local play-by-play man choosing the radio, by clicking the Buy Now button on the righthand side of your page (or at the bottom, on mobile). Subscriptions cost $11.11 per year.