In January 2011, the Rays traded a good young starting pitcher who was about to get into his expensive pre-free agency years. They received a five-player package that included another good young starting pitcher, who himself went on to pitch well for the Rays for several years. In 2018, they traded that pitcher for a package that included another young starting pitcher, who gave the Rays several good seasons of service. And last week, they traded him for a package that included another promising young pitcher.
It’ll probably be a minute before 26-year-old Ryan Pepiot is ready to buy a house. Interest rates being what they are, even the major league minimum salary doesn’t go as far as it used to anymore. It’s just as well, because he should rent until sometime in late 2026, I suspect.
See, this started as a joke about how the Rays always trade their good young players before they hit free agency. Turns out the Rays are so systematic about this sort of thing that they defy parody.
Since 2006, Andrew Friedman’s first full season as GM, 15 pre-free agency Rays starters have had seasons of 110 innings or more with an ERA- of 90 or better. Three of those — Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, and Jeffrey Springs — are still with the team, and incidentally are currently recovering from long-term injuries. The other 12 had fascinatingly similar departures. Here they are in no particular order:
What Happened to the Young Rays Starters
So, yeah, it doesn’t just seem like the Rays trade every good pitcher they develop right as they get expensive. The Rays trade almost literally every good pitcher they develop right as they get expensive.
Here, I’ll reserve judgment both empirical and normative. (For the former, I recommend this 2021 Rob Arthur story from Baseball Prospectus, which puts Miller’s Law of Rays Transactions to the test.) Certainly I have opinions on whether it’s smart and/or righteous to run a ballclub this way, but that’s not really the point. The point is that this is what the Rays do, with alarming consistency.
Of the 12 starting pitchers on this list, 10 departed the team via trade. Of those 10, eight had between two and three and a half seasons of team control left. Just because I was curious, I looked up Victor Zambrano; he had approximately three and a half seasons of team control when the then-Devil Rays traded him to the Mets. The Zambrano trade was a Chuck LaMar special (though Friedman was in the Tampa Bay front office by then), and Zambrano doesn’t meet the quality criteria for this list either, but I know you were thinking about it, too.
Four pitchers weren’t shipped off with between two and three and a half years of team control left: Price, Chirinos, Cobb, and Glasnow. Price lasted half a season past the prime trade window, then fetched an enormous haul anyway, because he was David Jetpacking Price and the normal rules of Rays attrition didn’t apply to him. The other three all had, or were recovering from, Tommy John surgery within the prime trade window. Cobb got hurt at the start of his free agency-minus-three season in 2015, returned to action at the very end of 2016, and got shelled. He was great in his walk year, but by that point it was too late for the Rays to trade him. Glasnow got traded with one year of team control left after missing half of 2021 and almost all of 2022 recovering from UCL reconstruction. And Chirinos got hurt in 2020 and was just never the same.
Chirinos probably doesn’t belong on a list with Snell and Price; his career parallels Jeff Niemann’s more closely. Niemann had one good season followed by two decent ones, but because he pitched at Rice in the mid-2000s, the connective tissue in his throwing arm had been reduced to barbacoa by the time the Rays even got their hands on him. He threw his last pitch in the majors before he turned 30.
In short, there are three ways for a young Rays pitcher to avoid that rigidly scheduled bus out of town: Injury, ineffectiveness, or being David Price. Pepiot certainly hopes to fall into bucket no. 3. We’ll see; in 42 innings in 2023, he posted a 2.14 ERA and 3.1% walk rate. But that low ERA probably got flattened by a LOB% of 99.2. I only bring that last number up because it is so ludicrous; I have never seen a strand rate like that, even in a sample of more than 40 innings.
But let’s say Pepiot turns out to be great in Tampa Bay. Couldn’t he sign an extension? After all, the Rays love nothing more than a pre-arbitration extension. Nope. Just as the Rays traded pitchers who were going year-by-year through arbitration, like Glasnow and Snell, they also traded pitchers who had signed long-term contract extensions, like Archer, Shields, and Moore. Kazmir got traded half a season into a three-year contract, the poor guy. There’s no room for sentimentality in Florida. That’s how you get eaten by manatees.
Tracing Pepiot back to Garza, through Glasnow and Archer, it really hits home that every time the Rays do this, it’s like Mardi Gras for people who enjoy trade tree-type analysis. (“Analysis” here being a euphemism for “nostalgia.”) Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I once watched an entire 41-minute YouTube video on the wide-ranging implications of the 1992 Eric Lindros trade.
The Ryan Pepiot Trade Tree
|Yankees trade Chuck Knoblauch to Minnesota for Brian Buchanan, Danny Mota, Eric Milton, and Cristian Guzmán
|Twins trade Buchanan to San Diego for Jason Bartlett
|Twins trade Bartlett, Matt Garza, and Eddie Morlan to the Rays for Brendan Harris, Jason Pridie, and Delmon Young
|Rays trade Garza, Fernando Perez, and Zac Rosscup to the Cubs for Hak-Ju Lee, Chris Archer, Robinson Chirinos, Sam Fuld, and Brandon Guyer
|Rays trade Archer to Pittsburgh for Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Shane Baz
|Rays trade Glasnow and Manuel Margot to the Dodgers for Ryan Pepiot and Jonny Deluca
And this isn’t the half of it. The Rays make lots of trades, including lots of big trades and trades involving major leaguers going both ways. As a result, these networks extend even further than you might think. Meadows got flipped for Isaac Paredes; Margot was traded for Craig Kimbrel and Emilio Pagán in separate deals; you could go through the ensuing trade that sent Garza from Chicago to Texas and within a couple links come all the way back around to the Scott Kazmir trade. I tried to see if I could connect every player on the list into the same trade tree, but unfortunately, in addition to the players the Rays have never traded in or out, the Snell deal is a dead end.
After a while, something else becomes clear. To borrow a conclusion from the Rob Arthur article: In the early 2010s, the Rays were genuinely getting one over on their trade partners. And occasionally, they’d do it again as the decade wore on; the second Chris Archer trade was just as much of a heist as the first. But the Rays aren’t trading a red paper clip for a house. Increasingly, they’re trading a red paper clip for a newer, cheaper red paper clip and repeating the process for… well, about 20 years so far. And counting.