The Tampa Bay Rays let relievers leave all the time. Grant Balfour, Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, J.P. Howell, and Randy Choate are all proud alumni of the Rays’ bullpen that eventually moved on. Yesterday, Balfour became the first of them to return. But in every case, there is a common thread: they either get too expensive or the Rays see a better alternative on the market. Balfour, Soriano, and Benoit got their big deals elsewhere while the Rays deemed they had enough lefty relievers on the fold to let Howell and Choate leave. But how do we make sense of the Rays trading Alex Torres? Torres was cheap, still being in his pre-arbitration years, and the Rays had high hopes for him in their bullpen. Torres was not just a lefty reliever but a high-leverage arm with the ability to handle the late innings down the line. How could the Rays trade him?
The Rays’ trade of Alex Torres to the San Diego Padres is a deal unlike any them have made in the Andrew Friedman era. They traded Jeff Ridgway in 2008, and both Juan Salas and Jason Hammel in 2009, but they really traded them because they did not have a spot on their team and were not very good. (Obviously Hammel turned out to be better than they thought.) The Rays also traded Burke Badenhop to the Milwaukee Brewers last year, but he was a low-leverage reliever with just one year left under team control. When we think about a comparable trade to this Torres deal, there really is only one: the trade of Edwin Jackson to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Matt Joyce. So let’s backtrack–why did the Rays trade Edwin Jackson in 2008?
Just like Torres was the centerpiece of the Scott Kazmir trade in 2009, Jackson was the key to the Danys Baez trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006. Jackson cracked the Rays’ bullpen by the end of 2006, had a mediocre season in their rotation in 2007, and then took a step forward in 2008, winning 14 games. The wins, though, did not tell nearly the whole story as Jackson managed just a 4.42 ERA and a 108-77 strikeout to walk ratio. He still had talent, hitting 95 MPH with his fastball to go along with a good slider and decent changeup, but after seeing him for three years, the Rays decided that he could not be a consistent starting pitcher in the major leagues and traded him before his value got any lower. Jackson was more talented than Ridgway or Salas, but at the end of the day, the reason he was the same: he wasn’t performing. The Rays could have made room for him in their rotation, but they had enough rotation depth that they were ready to move on. It is true that the Rays will be able to fill out their bullpen without Torres, especially after re-signing Balfour–but he is in the exact opposite edge of the spectrum in terms of performance after an outstanding rookie year. However, that could be exactly the point.
The Rays love to trade from a position of strength. They did so with Matt Garza and James Shields, and they are doing so again with Alex Torres. The place for Torres in the Rays bullpen becomes questionable with Balfour in the picture. The Rays have Balfour closing, Joel Peralta, Heath Bell, and Jake McGee filling setup roles, and Juan Carlos Oviedo stuck in middle relief despite his closer experience. The Rays have two more spots left in their bullpen, but they will be lower-leverage ones. Torres could certainly fill one of them, but sticking him in that role would be a waste of his abilities. And it is that moment when a player has more value with another team that is the best time to trade him. The Rays saw an opportunity to trade a player at the top of his value while losing little from their 2014 effort. Alex Torres is a talented pitcher, but some chances are just too good to pass up.