Updated: Dec 30, 2020
The San Diego Padres, Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs again reminded the baseball world nothing in Major League Baseball matters more than scouting and development.
Make no mistake, that’s the biggest lesson to learn from the five-player deal that sent Blake Snell to San Diego for Luis Patino, Cole Wilcox, Francisco Mejia, and Blake Hunt. Less than 24 hours later, the Padres, like a dude joyriding his new Porsche through a busy bar district and screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘Hey, ladies!!!,' flaunted their reminder again when they acquired Yu Darvish from the Chicago Cubs for Zach Davies and four guys even casual prospects readers probably have never heard of. Although they reminded us in two distinctly different ways, last year’s American League champion and the future trendy pick to win the 2021 World Series flexed their scouting and development muscle yet again. This time, they did it in a way that made the baseball world stop spinning. Meanwhile, the Cubs showed the price paid during a pandemic when the farm’s resources are exhausted, the owner cries poor, and a long-term rebuild is on the horizon because the young talent isn’t in the developmental pipeline. Not to aggressively and irritably veer too far off track because I’d prefer not to rant about MLB owners, but google “Ricketts, Cubs, debt, real estate,” and if you have like 30 minutes to read something better than this, Deadspin’s 2019 piece on how the Ricketts bought the Cubs is fascinating.
Lost in all the predictable hot takes about Snell’s salary, cheap owners and Tampa Bay’s 2021 roster is a baseball truth that hasn’t changed and probably won’t ever change as long as I’m alive. Teams that can scout and develop as good or better than everyone else in baseball are always going to be positioned to consistently compete both in the standings and the trade market. The Padres are obviously going for it this year, as they did last season, and are doing so aggressively. They gave up a significant amount of prospect firepower to acquire Snell, who is owed $39 million over the next three seasons. They also didn’t deplete their farm system. Not even close, actually. And because they’re such a strong scouting organization, almost immediately reinforced by the upcoming Darvish deal, they can fairly operate with confidence they’ll be able to replenish the farm through the draft or internationally. Wilcox and Patino are great examples of this. The former was viewed as a tough sign as a draft-eligible sophomore starting pitcher at Georgia despite being a first-round talent. Undeterred by shortened sophomore season and high price tag following an okay freshman campaign, the Padres, confident in their scouting, drafted him in the third round of the 2020 draft and figured out a way to pay him first-round money. The latter was signed for $130,000 as a 16-year-old, 150-pounder from Columbia. As for the Rays, they’re still going for it too, and they’re operating more similarly than you think. Like the Padres, the Rays can and are extremely confident in their scouting and development for good reason. How else could you simply explain a franchise with a World Series appearance following 96 and 90-win seasons surrounded by the American League East’s big spenders? Relative to their peers, the Rays have proven capable of identifying and developing MLB or prospect talent at a very high level. I shouldn’t need to remind you the last time the Rays traded away a starting pitcher who accumulated around 16.0 fWAR – or 4.4 fWAR more than Snell his entire Rays career - in five-plus full seasons before he was traded. Frankly, I don’t want to because hidden in my closet are Pirates shirts. The trade is eerily like this one, although San Diego needed to give up more because of Snell’s team control. Could the Rays have afforded Snell’s contract the next three seasons? Certainly. Charlie Morton’s money came off the books and their current 40-man Competitive Balance Tax payroll is $49,416,687. Arte Moreno refers to that dollar figure as a Monday. Don’t misinterpret this as a defense for a MLB owner penny-pinching even if he’s in Tampa Bay with a bad home ballpark. Rather, I’m viewing this trade through the context of Tampa Bay’s operation, clearly in a dramatically different financial tier than San Diego for whatever reasons. Tampa Bay proved recently when it signed Charlie Morton it’ll spend when it feels the value and time are right and are always going to operate to acquire the best value for the present without sacrificing the future. Where the takes about the 2021 Rays go wrong is the unfair assumption this hurts Tampa Bay’s chances this season. We don’t know if/how Tampa Bay is going to use the millions saved from trading Snell’s contract. We don’t know how good or what role Patino, who according to ESPN’S Kiley McDaniel was rated by some higher than MacKenzie Gore, and Mejia will fill for Tampa. And while many don’t seem willing to admit it, Snell doesn’t arrive to San Diego without some risk. He’s had shoulder and elbow issues and besides his truly brilliant 2018 he’s never thrown more than 129.1 innings in a professional season. What we can assume is both these organizations are probably going to be in similar positions in 2020 and beyond. They go about their business differently, but they both operate from a foundation of investing in and valuing their ability to scout and develop as well or better than the rest of the field. The Cubs, however, will not be in a similar position to 2020 next season or beyond. San Diego’s reputation as a top scouting organization was bolstered when the Cubs agreed to take back four “lottery tickets” in addition to an ordinary yet solid starter in Davies. Owen Caissie was selected a round ahead of Wilcox by the Padres and was part of the deal. Reginald Preciado signed for $1.3 million during 2019’s international period. Yeison Santana is another teenage shortstop and outfielder Ismael Mena has yet to take a professional at-bat after being signed in 2019. San Diego didn't come close to dipping into the top tier of its system and will likely replace each of these prospects the next signing and draft cycle. How much of this trade by the Cubs was influenced by ownership wanting to cut millions? I’m not sure. You’d have to ask the owner who referred to 2020 financial losses as “biblical.” And it’s unfair to rate the trade on current prospect ranking because how often are teenagers with little to no professional experience labeled as top 10 organization prospects? If the Cubs did this right, the owner can better operate like he’s cheap and at least a couple of the four prospects crack the Cubs’ top 10 list in the future. Regardless, this strongly suggests the Cubs are on board with a long rebuild with the understanding their farm system simply cannot support a quick rebuild, and that would probably still ring true if the Cubs screamed “fire!” and soon dealt Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo before upcoming free agency. If they better balanced the short-term pursuit with the long-term outlook and didn’t whiff on deals like Jose Quintana, they wouldn’t be in this position.
To put it another way, if they scouted and developed like the Padres and Rays they’d never have to entertain a long rebuild, especially considering their franchise's status, resources and ability to attract free agents. Okay, their roster and outlook wouldn’t be in this position, but the owner’s financial pity party would still rain on any visions of a parade.
FANTASY SPIN Blake Snell – Going way out on a limb here but Snell will likely operate with a longer leash in San Diego. The last time we saw Snell on the mound in the World Series… yeah, you remember. By the end of last season, Dinelson Lamet, who has nearly identical career K and BB percentages, threw into the eighth inning coming off an injury. This is just one metric, but FantasyPros.com’s park factors ranked Tropicana Field just one spot ahead of Petco in runs. I’m assuming the National League will have a designated hitter again. So, Snell won’t receive a bump there. Currently, he’s rated SP17 on my list sandwiched between Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke. I don’t think the trade makes me bump him higher, although swapping him with Jack Flaherty at SP15 is tempting. However, it does make him more enticing to me in drafts because of potential for more innings pitched. Luis Patino – I aggressively targeted Patino in FAAB last season despite the obvious relief warning signs because I always aggressively target elite talent when it’s discounted. Patino has good athleticism and after watching most of his 2020 season, I can see why the prospect reports aggressively projected his command as a future plus tool. That said, the control was awful last season and although there were enough flashes to project above average command sooner than later, it makes projecting his 2021 impact difficult unless you choose to value the talent and ignore 2020 and recent minor league walk rates. Clearly, even though his stuff might be the best in the minors, he wasn't ready for the MLB level in 2020. Early reports from esteemed Rays beat writer Marc Topkin indicate the Rays see Patino as a starter, and he’ll be in the mix initially as one of the opener/bulk inning pitchers in 2021, like Josh Fleming was last season. While some might dismiss this as a negative for fantasy value, I’m actually tempted, if this does indeed to be the case, to be more in on Patino in this role because it allows his control and command to develop in a more controlled, better environment facing a lineup just once, maybe twice if he’s throwing well and should mean multiple appearances in a week. That said, I've heard it might be more likely Patino starts in the minors and works his way into cracking the MLB again as a full-time starter.
Freddy Peralta finished as the 98th rated pitcher, per Razzball.com’s rater, last season and I could see a similar type year for Patino with upside for more if the Rays utilize him like Topkin suggests. That's a risk to bet on in drafts right now, though.
Francisco Mejia – Hit .305/.355/.511 the second half of 2019 with a 127 wRC+. Unfortunately, 2020 was basically a lost season as Mejia had a thumb injury and the Padres acquired a couple of catchers to make their pennant push. Not too long ago, the Rays didn’t have a single catcher on the 40-man roster. They then re-signed Mike Zunino. Still, I wonder if the Rays acquired Mejia with the bat in mind more than the catching, which could open him up to possible at-bats elsewhere. Once upon a time, Mejia was regarded as one of the best prospects in baseball mostly because of his bat; interestingly, his arm was labeled an 80/80 by Fangraphs. TLDR: He’s probably not a guy you’re seriously considering in 12-team leagues but is worth monitoring especially in 15-team leagues where he’s more intriguing. Yu Darvish – Personal catcher tagged along with him to San Diego and home starts are now in Petco instead of Wrigley? Darvish is currently a top 20 overall player on my board for 2021 and rates as SP5 behind Trevor Bauer. But I’m inclined to flip them given Darvish’s change of scenery - he and AJ Preller go way back, which should help the transition - and the unknown of where Bauer ends up.
Zach Davies – I don’t think the trade changes anything. He’s a sinker, changeup, cutter guy and either you believe in the ERA and big change in whiff% or you believe the 5.01 xERA. You were going to be in or out no matter what team he played for.
Photos courtesy AP Images