Blake Snell wins a Cy Young Award and the Rays lose a few IQ points

ST. PETERSBURG — Baseball is played differently around here and, over time, we’ve learned to revel in it.

Maybe the Rays underwhelm when it comes to crowds, payrolls and cover boys, but they make up for it in daring and ingenuity. And that ability to match Tampa Bay’s wits against Boston’s muscle and New York’s money has engendered a much-needed dignity among fans. A certain smugness, if you will.

The Rays wheel and deal every offseason, and the rest of baseball watches with barely disguised envy.

Until a week like this comes along. When Blake Snell wins a Cy Young Award in San Diego at the same time the Rays reportedly are shopping their latest soon-to-be-rich ace, Tyler Glasnow.

Welcome to the other side of smug.

This is no different than how the Rays have operated the past 18 years or so, but it is a reminder of how narrow their path can be. Even when they follow their patented formula, there is no guarantee the results will come as planned.

Take the Snell trade.

In theory, it had some validity. Snell’s salary was about to grow from $7.6 million to an average of nearly $14 million in the next three seasons. He had also struggled with his command and averaged fewer than five innings per start in 2019-20.

He was taking the same path forged by Evan Longoria, James Shields, Scott Kazmir and Chris Archer. All were dealt with multiple years remaining on contract extensions they had originally signed in Tampa Bay. Some of those trades worked because the player’s performance and salary were heading in opposite directions. Some worked because of the haul of young players the Rays got in return.

The Snell trade failed on both counts.

His ERA (3.15 in San Diego, 3.24 in Tampa Bay), WHIP (1.232 to 1.237) and strikeouts per nine innings (11.9 to 10.5) in his three years in San Diego were all similar, or better, than his time in Tampa Bay. He cost more, yes, but his value had still not outgrown his salary. And he could have been a huge factor in Tampa Bay’s premature exit in the last three postseasons.

So, okay, trading him was a risk. The same risk the Rays took when they dealt David Price and he went 18-5 and led the league in ERA the next season. The same risk they took when they traded Shields and he went 40-24 with a 3.41 ERA and an MLB-high 101 starts for the next three seasons. The difference is the Price trade brought Willy Adames and Drew Smyly to the Rays. The Shields trade brought Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi in return.

The Snell trade brought … frustration.

Four prospects — Blake Hunt, Francisco Mejia, Luis Patino, Cole Wilcox — were acquired from the Padres and three of them are already out of the organization with minimal return. Only Wilcox, who had a 5.23 ERA in Double A in his return from Tommy John surgery last season, remains in the Rays system.

Patino was a complete bust and sold to the White Sox, Mejia never progressed and recently was cut loose, and Hunt was traded to Seattle for a 24-year-old catcher who has never played above Class A.

Disaster? Maybe not for a franchise with more resources, but losing a former — and future — Cy Young Award winner with little to show for it is a devastating blow for the Rays.

A team such as Texas can afford to completely whiff on a free-agent signing like Jacob deGrom because the Rangers have enough money to pick up a rental player like Jordan Montgomery and a high-salaried addition such as Max Scherzer a few months later at the trade deadline. The Rays don’t have that luxury, so any misstep is magnified.

Now the Rays are in a situation where they need to dump contracts on a team that just won 99 games. If they do nothing, their payroll will be approaching the $120 million range, which is around $40 million higher than it has ever been.

That means trying to unload Manuel Margot, who has $10 million in salary and another $2 million buyout in 2025 after a season when his OPS dropped to .686 and he was Tampa Bay’s weakest defensive outfielder, according to the Fielding Bible’s defensive runs saved statistic. The Rays would almost certainly need to sweeten the pot for any team to take Margot off their hands.

That could also mean dealing Glasnow, and his $25 million salary, at a time when the Rays are looking for starting pitching with Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs expected to miss all, or large chunks, of the season following elbow surgeries.

None of this is new. Nor was it unexpected.

Threading the needle between contending/payroll has been part of Tampa Bay’s DNA since 2008. It is the basis of the team’s reputation for outsmarting everyone else, but it leaves virtually no margin for error.

So their thinking caps better fit snugly this winter.

The Rays cannot afford a Glasnow trade that resembles the Snell deal.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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