If the Rays have become known for one thing over the past several years, it's been their willingness to jettison expensive players and receive something notable in return. To cite one representative example, their 2011 trade of Matt Garza — who had three pricey years of team control remaining — netted them several useful players, chiefly current ace Chris Archer. The club's wheeling and dealing has set it apart and allowed it to consistently compete despite anemic payrolls.
On the flipside, if the Rockies have become known for one thing over the past several years, it's been their ambivalent approach to free agency and the trade market. Last season, they appeared to have begun the rebuilding process, trading star Troy Tulowitzki (in a swap that didn't look great from their perspective). In the offseason, though, they've signaled that they want to contend, making a few short-term deals that would fit a more talented team.
Earlier today, as you've likely seen by now, the Rays and Rockies made a somewhat significant trade: The former acquired Corey Dickerson, the latter Jake McGee and a (for now) unnamed minor-league pitcher. While one can make an argument that Colorado fared well in this exchange, Tampa Bay certainly seems to have gotten the better end.
We'll start with the players themselves. Dickerson, who will turn 27 in May, has 3.7 career fWAR in 925 plate appearances, translating to 2.4 wins per 600 plate appearances — a respectable level of play. Steamer thinks he might fall off from that pace a bit, projecting 1.5 fWAR in 525 chances (1.7 fWAR/600), but he should remain at least an average player.
Although Dickerson's defense in the outfield hasn't been pretty — in 1669.1 innings, he cost the Rockies 9 runs according to DRS and 9.2 runs according to UZR — a solid 124 wRC+ has made him valuable. Per FanGraphs, the Rays had the worst first basemen in the majors last season; if they move Dickerson to the infield, he could improve his glove to match his bat.
Dickerson clearly has flaws — otherwise, the Rockies would have kept him around. In addition to the aforementioned defensive woes, he's struggled with same-handed pitching: His superb 139 lifetime wRC+ against righties belies a pitiful 71 wRC+ versus lefties. Still, he could partner with Brandon Guyer*, who's historically demolished southpaws, to form a platoon solution. Like Matt Joyce and David DeJesus before him, Dickerson will likely fit in somewhere, and succeed, as a Ray.
*Another product of that Garza trade.
McGee, unlike Dickerson, is not average. Since he became a full-time member of the Tampa bullpen four years ago, he's ranked among the game's best relief pitchers. His 6.4 fWAR places seventh among qualified relievers, and while he fares a bit worse by RA9-WAR — where he falls to 18th in the standings — he still stands apart from most of his peers. As projections tend to do for relievers, Steamer takes a fairly pessimistic stand for his 2016, foreseeing 65.0 innings of 0.8-fWAR ball. That's nevertheless a solid amount, in line with the predictions for Mark Melancon and Jeurys Familia.
How does McGee perform so well? He gets strikeouts, and lots of them — he's fanned 32.0 percent of the batters he's faced in each of the past four seasons, good enough for 14th in the majors. On the whole, he's maintained great control, walking only 6.4 percent of opponents in those campaigns; aside from a fluky 2013, he's also kept the ball in the yard, with a home run rate of 1.8 percent over that span. Take remarkable production in the three true outcomes, add in a low BABIP (.272) and high strand rate (77.7 percent), and you'll get a top-notch reliever.
Pitchers who play for the Rockies can melt down at any time, meaning McGee may fall off a bit. If anyone can excel in Coors Field, though, he can. Conventional wisdom — and some research — seems to suggest that breaking balls won't move as effectively in Colorado. As Mike Petriello noted on Twitter, McGee relies almost entirely on fastballs, which have comprised 92.8 percent of his pitches since 2012 (via Brooks). So while his results will almost certainly fall off, they may remain better than we'd expect.
Why, then, did Tampa win this deal? Part of it stems from service time. Dickerson has only three major-league seasons on his resume, meaning the Rays can retain him through 2019. Plus, he'll play for the minimum salary in 2016, which could allow the team to sign another free agent (maybe Ian Desmond?). McGee, by contrast, will be able to leave the Rockies after 2017, and he'll cost them a pretty penny before then.
The key ingredient here, however, is team quality as a whole. Before this trade, FanGraphs projected 82 wins for the Rays in 2016. Dickerson should add a win or two to that, elevating them closer to wild card territory (remember, the Astros made it to the playoffs with just 86 wins last season). Since those predictions have significant error bars, we can reasonably say that the Rays have a good shot at contending in 2016. A decent position player will help them toward that goal — and give them a reinforcement for the seasons to come.
On the other hand, FanGraphs thought the Rockies would finish with 74 wins prior to this deal. McGee could improve that by two or three, but even then they'd struggle to reach .500, let alone the playoffs. With Nolan Arenado the only star and plenty of scrubs (chiefly at first and second base), this team has limited upside and would need a lot of things to break right to play in October. For them, a relief pitcher doesn't move the needle in the short term and likely won't stick around in the long term.
There's always the chance that the Rockies will flip McGee for a larger return at some point. He could bring them some building blocks for the future, players who would help them in 2018 or 2019. But Corey Dickerson could have been one of those players, and obviously he won't be now. This deal just seems unnecessary from their perspective; like many of their decisions, this one has confounded many.
In the end, the stereotypes of the two teams probably won't change. As the Rays return to respectability in 2016 and beyond, they will benefit from Dickerson's production, while the Rockies will languish at the bottom of the NL West in spite of their elite reliever. Simply undoing this move wouldn't make Colorado notable or Tampa mediocre — the overall quality of the organizations would stay the same regardless — but it does put a bit more distance between the two, both on the field and in the minds of fans.
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