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The Rays trade Tommy Pham to Padres for Hunter Renfroe, Xavier Edwards

The Rays are it again, folks.

Divisional Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros - Game Five Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

In some ways, no reaction sums up the Rays’ decision to send Tommy Pham (and one still-unknown prospect) to the Padres for Hunter Renfroe and Xavier Edwards better than this one, unprompted reaction by Blake Snell:

To be perfectly fair to Edwards, he isn’t exactly “slapdick.” Edwards is a top prospect in his own right; Baseball America described him as a “quick, twitchy athlete... [with] an advanced eye... he is a base-stealing terror with his plus-plus speed... His fringe-average arm is his one drawback and may eventually force him to second base.”

That all being said, this is truly a perplexing move on behalf of the Rays. When the Rays do their traditional pump-and-dump of year-two or year-three arbitration players, the returns somewhat make sense given the context. When the Rays flipped David Price and got back Wily Adames, that made more sense; they were still technically rebuilding, and Price’s final-year arbitration costs would be a record-high.

When the Rays flipped Chris Archer, the thinking was similar to price but more matched with their contention cycle. After winning 90 games in 2018 the acquisition of Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow fit quite neatly into the fold; there was obviously the sense that they needed to be improved but there was an immediate impact that helped them get a game away from the ALCS; hell, Glasnow was in that very game.

In this case it’s a much more lateral, if even backward, move. Pham is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to make $8.6 million, and Renfroe $3.4 million. While Renfroe had power in a pitchers’ ballpark, slugging 33 home runs, he only had an OBP of .289 and looks to be worth about a single win next year, not exactly a “replacement” of Pham who was their most valuable position player from 2018-19 and produced 5.9 fWAR in 184 games.

There wouldn’t be as much questioning of the move if the Rays were below .500 this year, but this is a team very much vying for a divisional or wild card spot, Yankees and Gerrit Cole notwithstanding.

Which is why this may end up breaking even for the Rays—maybe they improve Renfroe a la Meadows, and maybe Edwards becomes a stud—but it’s a bad trade for baseball writ large. The Rays are a fun team with a great core of new players, and they essentially stole from Peter to pay Paul, losing possibly three wins in the immediate sense to get maybe three wins from 2022 to 2027. If a team can’t afford arbitration for a nearly-four-win player, then it’s fair to ask which scenario they would be willing to spend money other than an Evan Longoria slam-dunk extension.

Until there is a new (privately-funded) stadium, or a better TV deal, or a better ownership group, there’s really no use wasting more breath on moves like these, I suppose. The Rays have chosen to relegate themselves to an abbreviated two-to-four year cycle for any player, almost no matter how good, and no matter how good they are currently: once your arbitration prices hit this point on the graph, then we will trade it for future dollars. There are plenty of businesses that run that way perfectly well, but baseball shouldn’t be one of them.