December 28, 2020

Padres' Blake Snell Acquisition Shifts Power in Two MLB Divisions

With the free-agent market moving slowly for the top players available, the San Diego Padres decided not to waste their time waiting for Trevor Bauer or any other starting pitcher.

Late Sunday night, the Padres agreed to a deal with the Rays for former Cy Young winner Blake Snell, sending pitcher Luis Patino, catcher Francisco Mejia and two prospects to Tampa Bay to complete the deal.

It’s the kind of deal that few saw coming, as the reigning American League champions are trading away their ace who they signed to a team-friendly extension less than two years ago. Nevertheless, it’s a trade that has the potential to shift the balance of power in two different divisions, specifically the two divisions that sent teams to the World Series.

How It Changes the AL East

By trading away Snell, Tampa’s chances of repeating as AL East and American League champions have taken a huge hit.

No matter what level of success they reached last season, the Rays are sticking to their model of cutting costs and acquiring young, talented and cost-effective players. Despite the Cy Young on his mantle and another fine season in 2020, Snell’s salary of $39 million over the next three seasons is too much for them, especially coming off a season that saw revenue drop because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

With Snell being traded and Charlie Morton signing elsewhere in free agency, the Rays have lost two pitchers who combined to make 33% of their starts in 2020. Tampa is left with Tyler Glasnow to serve as the ace while Ryan Yarbrough, Josh Fleming and Michael Wacha, who is coming off a dreadful season with the Mets, fill out the rest of the rotation on days when Tampa doesn’t use an opener.

To be fair, Glasnow is a bonafide ace when healthy, Yarbrough is steady and reliable, and the 24-year-old Fleming was 4-0 with a 3.16 ERA in five starts last season. The Rays also rely heavily on a deep and versatile bullpen. However, losing Snell and Morton is a huge hit to their starting rotation for 2021.

Any thought that the Rays would be favored over the New York Yankees to win the AL East in 2021 is all but gone with Snell going to San Diego. Even with the Yankees having a lot of holes on their roster to fill, the presumption is that the Bronx Bombers will add pieces whereas the Rays are subtracting arguably their most important player. Meanwhile, the upstart Blue Jays are likely to be serious challengers in the AL East while the Orioles and Red Sox can’t be ruled out entirely. Without Snell, envisioning the Rays winning the AL East for the second straight year becomes a lot more difficult.

Oddly enough, trading Snell may actually help the Rays remain relevant in the long term. In addition to the money saved by trading Snell’s contract, Tampa has acquired two young pitchers and two young catchers who all have a chance to be impact players in the big leagues.

Prior to the trade, the Rays had arguably the best farm system in baseball, and now they have an even larger collection of young talent in the organization. While trading Snell might deprive the Rays of any opportunity to be AL East favorites in 2021, it does help to ensure that they will continue to be a thorn in the side of the division’s big spenders for many years to come.

How It Changes the NL West

For most of the last decade, every team in the NL West has looked up at the Los Angeles Dodgers, hoping to make up a little more ground with each passing year. In 2020, the Padres made up a substantial amount of ground on Los Angeles, finishing second in the division and winning the Wild Card Round of the playoffs before getting swept by the Dodgers in the NLDS. By acquiring Snell, they’ve taken yet another big step forward.

While the Padres could have held out hope of signing Bauer or another starter with big-game experience to lead their rotation, they get just what they need by trading for Snell. With Mike Clevinger sidelined in 2021, Snell will lead a rotation that also includes Dinelsom Lamet, Zach Davies and Chris Paddack.

Lamet was sensational in 2020, posting a 2.09 ERA over 12 starts, while Paddack proved himself capable of performing like a frontline starter in 2018. Snell’s addition warrants San Diego’s rotation being considered among the best in baseball.

Equally important, the Padres acquired a former Cy Young winner without giving up any of the young players in their core who were so instrumental in reaching the postseason and challenging the Dodgers last season. In fairness, the Dodgers still have the deeper rotation and better lineup, at least on paper. But with San Diego’s young core likely to improve and Snell now leading the rotation, it’s far less certain that the Dodgers will win their ninth straight NL West title in 2021.

Finally, while the Rays made this trade for the future, the Padres did the same. As mentioned, Snell has three years left on his current contract. His salary is also considerably less than what less accomplished pitchers are likely to get on the free-agent market this winter. In other words, they added a top-flight pitcher without breaking the bank.

With a great young core in place, including Lamet and Paddack, and Clevinger set to join Snell atop the San Diego rotation in 2022, the Padres are set up to be long-term challengers to the Dodgers, potentially ending the days in which Los Angeles winning the NL West is a forgone conclusion.

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