Late Saturday night, shortly after the Rays hosted their annual Fan Fest, news broke that they made a deal with the Padres. This is the second trade with San Diego this offseason, the first being the Tommy Pham for Hunter Renfroe and Xavier Edwards. This move had similar thought-provoking, head-scratching elements. Pagan served as the main closer in the closer by committee bullpen approach. After not making the team in spring training, he was quickly added and served exclusively in high leverage roles, and saw the most save opportunities on the Rays roster. With Tampa’s bullpen ranking as the best in the majors last season, this move is one out of depth more so than necessity.
Dealing Emilio Pagan, who quickly became a fan favorite, requires some further digging to justify moving an excellent reliever coming off a career year. Part of the reasoning is just that, he had a career year after coming over from Oakland last year in a 3 team trade with Texas. He posted career bests in K/9 (12.34), groundball percentage (34%), xFIP (3.15), and fWAR (1.5). To say he won’t ever reach these figures again is unfair, but Tampa is just selling high on this particular asset. The one potential knock on Pagan is his propensity to give up home runs. He notoriously works up in the zone and almost exclusively throws a mid to upper 90’s fastball, which in the era of launch angle can be worrisome. When he misses bats, he’s excellent, posting an opponent’s average against of .229 with a 9.57 strikeout to walk ratio. Another thing to consider is the new “3 batter minimum” rule being instituted in 2020 and how this affects baseball front offices and how they construct their rosters now. Pagan was a key figure in the Rays use of matchup bullpenning, something that will be limited by the league’s new rule. He oftentimes came in the game in the middle of an inning; he had 101 plate appearances with 2 outs, 85, with 1 out, and 81 with 0 outs. Pagan had drastic splits. In 171 plate appearances to righties he had a 21 K/BB ratio, in 96 plate appearances to lefties his K/BB ratio was only 3.3. He would serve as the stopgap when a right-handed threat came up late in the game or a situation with runners on when you need a big strikeout. San Diego will certainly have an improved bullpen by adding Pagan as they shorten the game to get to the elite closer (and sadly a former Ray) Kirby Yates.
The Rays clearly see something of great value in Manuel Margot. He was once a former top prospect with Boston and was used as a bargaining chip to bring Craig Kimbrel from San Diego to Boston. Margot was being rumored as a trade candidate, perhaps to open room for Mookie Betts to the Padres. The Rays are acquiring a right-handed counterpart for Kevin Kiermaier, one who plays elite-level defense, as Margot posted +11 OAA (outs above average) and 6 DRS. He’s a good platoon for Kiermaier, or at least an insurance policy if he can’t stay healthy. There are roughly 6 outfielders scheduled to make the Rays, and one defensive combination of Margot and Kiermaier should be fun to watch. Margot is still very young going into his age 25 season, and as he enters his prime he looks to build on promising .886 OPS against lefties, where he’ll see a bulk of playing time. He is also under club control through 2023 and his arbitration pay will likely stay under $5 million. Driscoll was the Padres 2nd round draft pick just last year, he’s shown some nice raw batting skills and is athletic enough behind the dish that he’s also listed as an outfielder. He likely begins the year in Low A ball.
This move tells us the Rays would rather gamble on the likes of Diego Castillo, a full season of Nick Anderson, a reinvigorated Jose Alvarado, Colin Poche, Oliver Drake, Chaz Roe, and perhaps Peter Fairbanks to pick up the slack now that Pagan is out the door. Margot should be seen as a useful and talented player that the Rays love to squeeze the most out of. My initial reaction to the trade was that they just got a better version of Guillermo Heredia from last year’s squad. This acquisition likely puts to bed any speculation of Randy Arozarena making the team out of spring. Reuniting Renfroe and Margot along with KK, Austin Meadows, and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo. They certainly have depth and plenty of capable athletes to go around now. Who knows what this move will open the door for in terms of other moves. Does Margot’s impending success mean KK becomes expendable? How soon would the Rays pull the trigger on a trade like that? For San Diego, what’s their plan for centerfield, Myers? Pham? Grisham? We shall see, but it’s mid-Februrary and I needed to talk about baseball because I miss it dearly.