Perhaps the most enduring image, and the source of the most debate, of the 2020 season, was that of Tampa Bay Rays ace Blake Snell stalking off the field in obvious frustration after being pulled from Game 6 of the World Series. The 2018 American League Cy Young award winner had just allowed his second hit of the game, a single to Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Will Smith. With no outs and Mookie Betts and the top of the Dodgers lineup set to bat, Rays manager Kevin Cash turned to his bullpen despite Snell’s low pitch count and dominant performance to that point. We all know how that turned out.
Snell was undoubtedly upset at the decision, but whether that plays into his availability is anyone’s guess. More likely this is just the Rays’ usual yearly turnover of more expensive talent. They’ve already allowed Charlie Morton to walk away this offseason. The veteran signed a one-year deal with the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday at the same rate the Rays were paying him in 2020. Now, the cost-conscious—or cheap if you prefer—Rays have made it known that they’re open to offers for Snell.
Probably it’s too early for the Tigers to get involved with something like this, but just as a thought experiment, let’s take a look.
Snell has proven himself one of baseball’s top starting pitchers over the past few seasons and probably the premier left-hander in the game. He combines elite stuff with a bulldog mentality. While he’s had some injury issues the past two seasons, Snell has generally been pretty durable, though not a workhorse on the ever more rare level of a Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer.
In terms of the raw quality of his stuff, Snell has the whole package. He features a good riding fourseam fastball that averaged 95 miles per hour this year, and a set of offspeed pitches that are tuned to play off of each other very well. While none of them are elite standouts in terms of movement Snell’s curveball and slider generate a ton of whiffs, and he backs it all up with an excellent changeup. The result is a strikeout rate that ranks sixth among qualified starters over the last three seasons combined.
Snell is just days from turning 28, and the five-year deal he signed after winning the Cy Young has three more seasons at a total of $41 million remaining. He’s averaged just over 3 fWAR per season over the last three full seasons pitched. He did have a minor shoulder injury in 2019, but for the most part he’s been healthy so there are no particular concerns beyond the usual ones regarding any pitcher. Snell is decidedly a bargain in terms of dollars, but of course the cost in prospects will be rather steep.
Obviously trading for Blake Snell would immediately put the Tigers rotation in much better shape. With Snell, Spencer Turnbull, their young pitching prospects, and some combination of Matt Boyd and Michael Fulmer, they would have a chance at a group good enough to contend in the AL Central. The offense is, of course, another matter. This would also require things going fairly well where the pitching prospects are concerned, but the Tigers future hopes depend on that factor to a large degree anyway.
The other positive here is that Snell isn’t very expensive. Obviously for the Tigers to have any chance of contention in the next few years, they’re going to need to spend some serious coin to shore up weaknesses. By 2022, Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson should be installed as key parts of that lineup. The Tigers have players like Isaac Paredes, Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro, and a few other decent position player prospects, but even if everything goes well they’re still going to need to add some quality hitters. Snell gives you that ace without eating up valuable payroll space the way a Trevor Bauer signing would, for example.
There’s also no guarantee that the club’s starting pitching prospects turn out to be ace-caliber pitchers. Someone will fall well short, and probably at least one will have some serious injury issues along the way. Adding a cost-controlled ace in trade, as opposed to trying to add top-tier pitching talent in free agency further down the road, avoids the possibility of being forced to offer a major long-term contract to a starting pitcher should the prospects turn out to be solid to good rather than great.
Obviously the problem here is the cost and the somewhat limited window provided by a Snell acquisition. The thought of the Tigers front office trading with the Rays is unnerving on its own, let alone considering that a deal for Snell will cost them a Casey Mize or Matt Manning. A move like this is probably a year too soon, but the three-year term of his deal is rather perfect for articulating the delicate spot the Tigers rebuilding effort is in right now.
Right now, the Tigers expect to have their top five prospects in place by 2022. Presumably, some will have early struggles, while others may battle injury. We’d all like to believe that Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Riley Greene, and Spencer Torkelson, as well as some of the supporting cast from the farm system, will all max out their projections and avoid major injury trouble. But of course things rarely go according to plan, particularly where young arms are concerned.
Look no further than the package of pitching prospects Dave Dombrowski acquired for David Price and Yoenis Cespedes back in 2015. The Tigers current group of pitching prospects is deeper and a little more talented, but the case of Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, and Matt Boyd presents a cautionary tale well worth keeping in mind. At some point, trading a high end prospect for proven talent is likely to be necessary to get the Tigers back into shape as a legitimate October threat.
Unless the Tigers are willing to spend on a pair of big ticket free agent bats this offseason, they aren’t going to be competing for the AL Central in 2021. Their plans are unknowable, but a move like trading for Snell only makes sense as part of a larger push this offseason from ownership and the front office. However, if the Tigers were considering targeting a pair of veteran bats and some cheaper veteran help to fill in a few gaps, then a deal like this becomes far more reasonable.
Were they to assess their young pitchers and deal the right one for Snell, they still have plenty of talent coming and will pick pretty high in the draft once again in 2021. A rotation of Snell, Turnbull, and two of the Mize, Manning, Skubal group gets you a lot closer to success, whereas waiting to see if one or more of those three young pitchers can emerge as legitimate frontline starters could take several more years. A move like a Snell trade, coupled with smart free agent spending, could make the Tigers an emerging threat as early as 2021-2022.
At some point, waiting for all your prospects to work out is just not a reasonable strategy for success. It could be several years until one of Mize, Manning, or Skubal develops into the pitcher that Snell is right now. The Tigers have spent five years in the league’s basement, and for the past three seasons have run very low payrolls for their market size. With an overhauled player development staff, a new manager and coaching staff, it’s well past time to move beyond passively acquiring talent in the draft as the main overriding strategy.
That doesn’t mean you have to trade away your top pitching prospects either, but somehow, the Tigers are going to have to find a diamond in the rough or get some real magic out of new pitching coach Chris Fetter. If not, it could easily be years until the Tigers boast the good homegrown rotation they’re hoping for.
Yes, this is extremely unlikely. If the Tigers made a trade like this, it would of necessity precipitate a whole series of signings and probably another trade or two. Dealing for Snell only to take a mediocre at best offense into the season would be a waste of a third of the team control attached to him. The Tigers are nearing a point where this type of move needs to be realistically considered, but right now it’s probably a year too soon. A host of other things would have to happen in concert with a Snell trade to make this a viable strategy.
Look for a team that desperately needs a starting pitcher to put them over the top to get involved here. The Los Angeles Angels would be the most likely suspect. New general manager Perry Minasian has a mandate to get Mike Trout to the playoffs, and their need for high end starting pitching remains enormous.