Rays’ Pham-Renfroe Trade Epitomizes Team’s Cutthroat, Production-Grinding Ways

The Tampa Bay Rays recently made a trade with the San Diego Padres that’s generally perceived as a fair swap. The deal sent outfielder Tommy Pham and two-way prospect Jake Cronenworth to San Diego and outfielder Hunter Renfroe, second base prospect Xavier Edwards, and a player to be named later to Tampa Bay.

But from the Rays’ perspective, the trade epitomizes the organization’s cutthroat, production-grinding ways.

Pham and Renfroe are the headliners of this deal. Sure, maybe Cronenworth and Edwards become fixtures on the teams’ depth charts down the road, but the immediate element of this deal is the veteran outfielders exchanging homes.

Let’s compare Pham and Renfroe’s 2019 offensive outputs.

  • Pham: .273/.369/.450 batting line, 21 home runs, 68 RBIs, 90.8 mph average exit velocity, 44.8 percent hard-hit percentage, and 7.9 percent barrel percentage
  • Renfroe: .216/.289/.489 batting line, 33 home runs, 64 RBIs, 89.9 mph average exit velocity, 39.4 percent hard-hit percentage, and 12.0 percent barrel percentage

What’s the major distinction between the two? Renfroe’s power.

Renfroe has launched 26-plus home runs in each of the last three seasons. The ball explodes off his bat. Power is the featured element of Renfroe’s game, and it has only improved through his four years in the big leagues. Check out this three-home run game he had against the Colorado Rockies last season.

Yes, these home runs were hit in the hitter-friendly Coors Field, but they were all no-doubters in any big-league ballpark. Last season the Rays were 21st in Major League Baseball in home runs (217). That total was ninth out of the 10 teams who appeared in the playoffs.

The Rays have plenty of players with pop in their bats, but outside of Yandy Diaz, there are a select few, if any players touted for their ability to hit for power at a high level; Renfroe brings that precise skill set to the table. They have well-rounded hitters in Austin Meadows, Brandon Lowe, and Ji-Man Choi. Now they have a couple power bats to complement their budding youngsters.

Renfroe is under team control through 2023 and will be 28 when the 2020 season opens. Pham is under team control through 2021 and will be 32 when the 2020 season begins. Did the Rays envision losing Pham to free agency in two years and this offseason being their best chance to maximize his value via trade?

The Rays have already lost/traded five position players from last season: Pham, Matt Duffy, Travis d’Arnaud, Jesus Aguilar, and Eric Sogard. Avisail Garcia, who appeared in 125 games for the Rays last season, is also a free agent.

This is a team that won 96 games last season and 90 games in 2018. Why would they just begone with so many familiar faces or players on team-friendly contracts?

Pham was a vital part of the Rays’ identity over the last two seasons. When they acquired him from the St. Louis Cardinals before the 2018 MLB trade deadline they were 53-53. After acquiring Pham, they finished the year 37-19. Was their late-season surge purely due to Pham’s presence? Of course not, but all they did was win with him present.

He was part of the team’s recent turnaround and a steady force at the plate. He ropes line drives, has a good eye, and comes through with clutch hits. The 31-year-old has always been a bit of an underdog, as he fell under-the-radar with the Cardinals, quietly blasting 21-plus home runs in each of the last three seasons, and came through with big-time hits — including this line-drive home run off Houston Astros right-hander Justin Verlander in Game 4 of last season’s American League Division Series.

This is the type of player that fans fall in love with. At the same time, the Rays, who finished last season with the lowest payroll in MLB at roughly $64 million, wheel and deal like nobody’s business.

They have a young positional core and/or players highly unlikely to be moved anytime soon such as Meadows, Lowe, and Willy Adames. Other than that, no one is off the table. Look at Matt Duffy. In 2018 he was one of the Rays’ most steady hitters and coming into his own as one of the better third basemen in baseball. Then he endured an injury-riddled season which included a limited role in the team’s depth chart and was released a few weeks ago.

Two other prime examples of the Rays’ tendencies are C.J. Cron and Corey Dickerson. In 2018 Cron was fourth among first basemen in home runs (30) but was released in the offseason. A year earlier Dickerson was coming off an encouraging season at the plate where he hit 27 home runs and posted an .815 OPS; he was released the ensuing offseason.

Manager Kevin Cash is a man of foresight and in-game defensive substitutions; Renfroe has extensive playing time at both corner outfield positions under his belt. Plus, his power makes for an ideal designated hitter.

Some of these moves might make you scratch your head. Perhaps the Rays have gone forth with them because they feel they have players who possess a similar skill set to said player, and they want to get a player who brings something different to the table?

Chaim Bloom, the Rays former president, might now be calling the shots for the Boston Red Sox, but it doesn’t seem as if the Rays’ thinking on roster construction has changed.

A lesson from all this might be that Rays’ fans can’t get too attached to players. When you’re an analytically driven team with a low payroll in search of super specific players, no one is safe. Who thought the Rays would trade Pham after the ALDS?

Pham didn’t do anything wrong. Heck, you could argue that he’s a better player than Renfroe. He has recorded a better OPS and OPS+ over the last two seasons and owns better career numbers in those categorizes than Renfroe. He’s also a more steady and consistent line-drive hitter. Age, contract, and the aspiration of acquiring a modern-day power bat fueled this trade.

This is Tampa Bay being Tampa Bay.

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