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The Rays and Guardians Help Each Other Out

Aug 22, 2023Aug 22, 2023

Every year, the Rays and Guardians pull off a neat magic trick. They piece together an impressive starting rotation by using a few awesome pitchers they’ve developed, some mid-level guys who pitch way above their pedigree, and a few slots of the rotation that mostly look like scrubs but churn out solid value anyway. The Rays like to sprinkle in some cheap veteran acquisitions that turn out to be better than we all thought, too. When the inevitable heat death of the universe occurs, I half expect Cleveland and Tampa Bay to be locked in the 12th inning of a 2–2 game, so consistent are their developmental pipelines.

The 2023 season has put some stress on the Rays’ side of that equation, though. Their top-end starters have been excellent. Shane McClanahan and Zach Eflin have both provided great bulk, Tyler Glasnow has been fantastic since returning from injury, and Taj Bradley is promising despite a rough start to the season (but is headed to Triple-A to make room for Civale). But injuries have wreaked havoc on their depth this year: Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen, and Josh Fleming have all hit the 60-day IL, with only Fleming likely to return this year.

Something else strange is going on down on the Gulf Coast, too: the Rays’ bullpen has been atrocious. I half expected Google Docs to underline that sentence as incorrect, because this is part of the Tampa Bay mythos: pick some random relievers, sprinkle in some crazy arm angles, and bam: top-five bullpen. But instead it’s been a bottom-five bullpen, and that makes the starters’ jobs much harder. The Rays have fallen out of first place in the AL East, the Blue Jays are lurking not far behind; something had to change.

That change: a trade that sent Aaron Civale from Ohio to Florida in exchange for Kyle Manzardo. Civale is having one of the best stretches of his career. Manzardo’s star has dimmed this year as he’s struggled in Triple-A and been hurt, but he’s a Top 100 prospect nonetheless. This deal makes a lot of sense for both teams, but I’m going to focus on two particular parts: Tampa Bay’s defense-in-depth rotation plans, and Cleveland’s new trade plans.

The Rays have invested a lot of resources in starting pitching. Eflin received the largest free-agent contract in team history. Glasnow and Rasmussen were trade return headliners. McClanahan was a high draft pick, Bradley is a heralded prospect, and Springs got a contract extension earlier this year. For a team that avoids contractual commitments as much as possible and tries to spend smarter rather than harder, these things matter: they’re taking away from possible investments elsewhere on the team.

Civale pushes that strategy even further. He won’t reach free agency until after the 2025 season, and he’s making his second trip to arbitration this year. I think he’ll do fairly well there; he has a 2.34 ERA and will set a new career high in innings pitched assuming he makes every turn down the stretch. That ERA overstates how good he is by a fair margin — a .242 BABIP and 5.6% HR/FB rate will do that — but he’s a solid third starter who makes up for a lack of strikeout stuff by flooding the zone and inducing weak contact with his cutter. He seems like the kind of pitcher who might benefit from Tampa Bay’s pitch mix optimization, too, though that’s more speculation than certainty.

If you look at the makeup of the team, this push into starting pitching makes a lot of sense. The Rays have a tremendous track record when it comes to finding above-average regulars via trade or development. Jose Siri, Luke Raley, Randy Arozarena, Yandy Díaz, Isaac Paredes — all of these guys will be around for years to come, and they’re all performing well after the Rays picked them up for peanuts on the trade market. The homegrown core — Wander Franco, Josh Lowe, Brandon Lowe (eh), and a bushelful of hitting prospects — compliments those trade pieces nicely. The lineup isn’t going to cost Tampa Bay much salary, and it’s going to be around for a while. Further investments in hitting feel like diminishing marginal returns unless the Rays can find a difference maker at catcher, and those don’t exactly grow on trees.

Likewise, investing in the bullpen isn’t normally how they operate. The Rays don’t spring for big rental relievers; they look for players with unique skills who might unlock a higher level of performance with Rays coaching, or attempt to find those players in the draft or via free agency. They traded for Nick Anderson once upon a time, but he had a ton of years of team control remaining. There’s clearly a formula in place for how to construct an excellent bullpen from generally overlooked pitchers; just because it hasn’t worked this year doesn’t mean they’re likely to abandon it.

When you put it that way, investing spare resources in the rotation is a logical move. As the saying goes, you can never have too much pitching, so the marginal returns don’t decline as quickly. Sure, they’ll have some guys returning from injury next year, but let’s be real: some of the currently healthy pitchers will get injured. I’m not trying to jinx anyone; that’s just how baseball works. Pitching is tough on arms, but you have to do it.

When you consider it from an opportunity cost standpoint, this trade makes even more sense. Manzardo was blocked five ways to Sunday in the Rays system. Díaz is around for a few more years and is basically first base only at this point in his career. Raley’s natural home is first base. Top prospect Curtis Mead is probably a long-term fit at the position. Paredes is playing third base for now, but he might need to move across the diamond at some point. Jonathan Aranda is melting Triple-A again and works best at first. They’re packed to the gills, in other words. Manzardo would have to beat out a lot of guys to provide value at the major league level.

Over in Cleveland, the situation looks kind of the same, but only on the surface. Sure, the Guardians have Josh Naylor and Josh Bell, but Naylor can fake the outfield and Bell is only around for another year. Heck, DH exists too, and Cleveland designated hitters have a gruesome 83 wRC+ on the year. The Guardians have a glut of middle infield prospects but weaknesses everywhere else. Manzardo faking the outfield might be better than a lot of the options the team is currently running out there (Steven Kwan, you’re a gem, this isn’t about you).

Is it strange for a contender to trade away good starting pitching? Absolutely. The Guardians just traded for a bulk starter in Noah Syndergaard, in fact. But like the Rays, the Guardians run a comically small budget and have to think long and hard about where to allocate resources. As I mentioned in the Rays section, Civale is headed for a raise, and the team has plenty of starting pitching in place for 2024. Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, and Cal Quantrill are rotation stalwarts to varying degrees. Gavin Williams, Tanner Bibee, and Logan Allen are all making a case for rotation spots next year. Peyton Battenfield will be back at some point, too. If you’re pinching pennies, Civale looks like an odd man out, particularly considering the teams’ needs on offense.

In past years, the Guardians have opted for quantity over quality in trade returns. They seem to always receive two or more players back, and those players run the gamut from interesting statistical cases to reclamation projects to mid-tier hitters who project as future role players. That keeps the team flush with cheap contributors, but it’s led to years of 40-man roster crunches and a lack of top farm talent. Manzardo immediately slots in as Cleveland’s top prospect on The Board, an indication of how the team’s farm system generally works.

In a sense, this trade is about the limitations of the concept of replacement level. Manzardo might be below replacement level for Tampa Bay if you exclude his value in trade. The Rays are flush with people who do the same thing that he does, only better, and he’s not flexible enough to find a place in their platoon-heavy system. That’s no knock on his skills; despite a down 2023, scouts are still high on his bat-to-ball skills and ability to barrel the ball up frequently enough to make up for middling raw power. It’s just a fact of life given the state of the system.

On the other side of things, Civale’s value above replacement might also have been negative to Cleveland. Money matters a lot on a shoestring budget, and the organization’s crop of rookies can likely make up most of his performance. The Yankees or Dodgers might choose a 3.90 ERA starter making $4.5 million over a 4.00 ERA starter making the minimum, but the Guardians would likely prefer to use that money elsewhere. I’m not even sure Civale is better than the crop of rookies who would be competing with him for a job.

There’s just one strange part of this trade for Cleveland: a lot of the starters competing with Civale for rotation space next year are currently hurt. Again, the Guardians just traded for Syndergaard as a rental. Their rotation has been snakebitten this year, and they’re locked in a high-stakes pillow fight for the AL Central crown. They might need 83 or even 84 wins to take the division down, and those wins are likely slightly harder to get with Civale leaving town. Clearly, the team thought it was worth it, but I do think this leaves Cleveland with a rotation deficit. Another trade for bulk innings might be in the cards, Jack Flaherty pun intended.

From Tampa Bay’s side, this is just good business. It might not be enough business — the Orioles and Blue Jays are tough competition — but it’s a clear upgrade for both this year and the next few. Teams that operate on tight budgets need to be thinking a few years out, and this trade improves the present and potentially the future as well. This was a good bit of business both ways, and what else would you expect? These two front offices know what they’re doing, particularly when it comes to making trades. It only stands to reason that deals between them help both sides out in the long run.