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Cardinals trade Tommy Pham to the Rays

I don’t know if it’s more surprising that the Cardinals parted with him or that the Rays acquired him.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

In a move that certainly surprised me for multiple reasons, the Cardinals sent Tommy Pham and $500,000 in international slot money to Tampa Bay for a package of prospects. The Rays are sending OF Justin Williams, LHP Genesis Cabrera and RHP Roel Ramírez to St. Louis. Pham still has three years left on his rookie contract and will hit arbitration for the first time after this season.

Pham had a huge breakout season last year. He hit .306/.411/.520, played great defense in left field as well as passable defense in center, and added significant value on the basepaths. His 6.2 WAR in only 128 games was tied with Kris Bryant for eleventh-best in baseball. It appeared that he was finally fully healthy and got his chronic eye condition under control. Regression was expected for Pham in 2018, as he was unlikely to be a true-talent 6-WAR player. The results, unfortunately, were much worse.

Pham is hitting only .248/.331/.399 this season, which is roughly league average. His .320 wOBA is lower than last year’s by 78 points. He has had to play everyday in center field, even though his defense is not strong enough to make this a good idea. It was also reported that Pham’s swing was suffering from mechanical issues that he reportedly fixed over the All-Star break.

It is no secret that Pham has been at odds with the Cardinals’ organization and former manager Mike Matheny. He apparently has a great relationship with interim manager Mike Shildt, so I was hoping this combined with his swing changes would rejuvenate him. A return of 6-WAR Pham is overly optimistic, but if he could be a 3-4 win player, I was sure that the Cardinals would happily take that. Well, it looks like the Cardinals were not as optimistic as I am.

This is a tough trade to evaluate. I believe Pham is a classic case of someone needing a change of scenery, so I have little doubt this will help him. The problem is what to make of Pham’s true talent. Is he closer to the MVP caliber player we saw last year? Or is he closer to the sub-par player he has been this season?

I decided to do something that I frequently find to be completely inadvisable: I searched Twitter to see what the reactions were. It was pretty polarizing. Either the Cardinals got lambasted for selling low on Pham, believing he is much better than he has shown to be this season, or the Cardinals were praised by those who believed Pham to be washed up. I didn’t find a lot of anything in between, but then again Twitter is not known for its nuance.

You can’t just ignore Pham’s past success and three remaining team-control years, but you also can’t ignore that he is already 30 years old and currently struggling. That being said, the Cardinals did not receive any impact players for Pham unless Cabrera hits his ceiling, which ESPN’s Keith Law believes to be that of a number two starter. None of these prospects were in anybody’s top ten for the Rays.

This return assumes that Pham is who he has been this season. I believe that is a pretty risky assumption. I understand that the Cardinals’ need to make more playing time for Harrison Bader and to add some depth to their farm system. However, the organization has been rife with personnel issues this season, and it’s hard not to believe that this is another consequence. Unless one of the three prospects they got unexpectedly becomes an impact player, there is a fair chance that the team regrets this trade.

While the move from the Cardinals’ perspective is highly debatable, it’s less so for the Rays. It’s just the kind of low-risk, high-reward move that suits them. They needed help in the outfield, and Pham can provide that. If it turns out the Cardinals were right about Pham, well, the Rays didn’t part with much for him anyway. The international slot money is also especially useful for a small market team that chooses to rely on drafting and player development.

The only real risk for the Rays is, ironically, if Pham starts to rake again. Then he will start to cost them a lot in arbitration. If that happens, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the Rays flipped him to another team for a much better return than what they sent to the Cardinals.

Had the Cardinals gotten Chris Archer, this would be a different story, but there was no way there were going to get him unless they sold high on Pham this past offseason. Again, one can make a fair argument in approving or disapproving of the Cardinals’ decision. The Rays, on the other hand, made a smart buy-low acquisition. Given the range of possible outcomes, it is going to be really interesting to see how this trade turns out down the road.

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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.