The biggest news to come out of the baseball world Thursday looked like a classic feel-good swap: Two teams, the Rays and Rockies, traded from positions of depth to acquire extremely useful pieces and make themselves better in 2016. Colorado added reliever and likely closer Jake McGee, while Tampa Bay picked up 26-year-old outfielder Corey Dickerson. A pair of Minor Leaguers also switched sides.
All of that is true, but the trade wasn't really even at all. Let's bow down to the geniuses who run the Rays, because it's only January and general manager Matthew Silverman leads the league in steals.
Here's the trade, put another way: In exchange for two years of a pretty expensive (and pretty good) reliever who was often hurt last year and became expendable when a replacement emerged, the Rays snagged four years of a high-ceilinged outfielder with some pop and just entering his prime.
It's trades like this one -- sending away a solid player relatively close to free agency to get a younger one of greater value to Tampa Bay -- that keep the financially handicapped Rays afloat in a perennially difficult American League East.
Before delving a bit further into why Dickerson is a sweet addition for Tampa Bay, a brief history of (Devil) Rays trades that fit this mold. (Note: The below examples include more names than just those listed, but for simplicity's sake we'll only mention the highlights).
• July 2004: Traded Aubrey Huff, three months away from free agency, to Houston for Ben Zobrist
• August 2009: Traded Scott Kazmir, less than two years before he was released due to ineffectiveness, to the Angels for Sean Rodriguez and Alex Torres
• January 2011: Traded Matt Garza, three years away from free agency, to the Cubs for Chris Archer
• December 2012: Traded (Wade Davis and) James Shields, two years away from free agency, to Kansas City for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery
• July 2014: Traded David Price, a season and a half away from free agency, in a three-team deal that yielded Drew Smyly
Zobrist is the second-best Ray of all-time, according to Baseball Reference's WAR. Rodriguez was a super utilityman worth 7.9 WAR over five years. Torres helped net current closer Brad Boxberger and Logan Forsythe from the Padres. Archer is the face of the Rays and one of the best pitchers in the division. Myers won AL Rookie of the Year in 2013. Odorizzi is still only 25 and is penciled in right behind Archer in the rotation. Montgomery turned into Erasmo Ramirez, another young, team-controlled starter. Smyly is dripping with potential and could break out in 2016 after an injury-plagued couple of seasons.
On and on it goes, trade trees extending in perpetuity as the Rays make the most out of what little they have, qualifying for the playoffs four times in the last eight years. Any of Archer, Odorizzi and Smyly could one day get dumped for shiny new arms, and Dickerson himself might end up bringing in a few prospects later this decade.
But for now, Dickerson is a Ray -- one of the best, at that. In parts of three Major League seasons, he has a .299/.345/.534 slash line with 39 homers in 265 games, including 10 last season (while playing in only 65 games) and 24 in 2014. He should bring some much-needed punch to a lineup that finished near the bottom of the league in scoring in '15.
Dickerson's presence muddies Tampa's outfield situation. Since Kevin Kiermaier is a beast defensively, let's assume he stays the starting center fielder. That leaves Dickerson, left fielder Desmond Jennings and right fielder Steven Souza (plus Brandon Guyer and Mikie Mahtook) looking for at-bats in the corner outfield spots.
Dickerson mashes against righties (.315/.343/595 in '15) but not so much against lefties (.268/.305/.357). Jennings is better against lefties (.273/.358/.448) in his career) and not so good against righties (.240/.315/.378). Souza doesn't hit for average but has a .806 career OPS vs. lefties (and .676 vs. righties).
Based on those splits, the Rays can do this, left to right across the outfield:
• Against right-handed starters: Dickerson/Kiermaier/Souza or Jennings
• Against left-handed starters: Jennings/Kiermaier/Souza
That assumes some defensive flexibility, and all of it can be filed under "good problems to have." What matters the most is the Rays got better this week, and they did it the way they often do: out with the old, in with the new.
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Follow Tim Healey on Twitter @timbhealey.