Revisiting two franchise-altering MLB trades

Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Ray fans will constantly jump up and down in exuberance.

For Arizona Diamondbacks and Pittsburgh Pirates fans, however, the complete opposite occurs.

In 2015, you had the Braves succeeding and the Diamondbacks sulking. In 2018, you had the Rays cheering and the Pirates crying. In two different trades, there was an obvious winner and recognizable loser for each. Who though? Between the two losers, who came out worse? Between the two winners, who came out ahead?

Before the answer can be found out, let’s recap what trades are being talked about here:

Date of trade: December 9, 2015

Teams Involved: Atlanta Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks

Atlanta Receives: SS Dansby Swanson, OF Ender Inciarte, RHP Aaron Blair

Arizona Receives: RHP Shelby Miller, LHP Gabe Speier

Date of trade: July 31, 2018

Teams Involved: Tampa Bay Rays and Pittsburgh Pirates

Tampa Bay Receives: RHP Tyler Glasnow, OF Austin Meadows, Player to Be Named Later (would later become RHP Shane Baz)

Pittsburgh Receives: RHP Chris Archer

Let’s start by looking at this from the perspective of Arizona and Pittsburgh. At the time the trades were made, Arizona and Pittsburgh respectively, were looking to take the next step toward contention.

Arizona’s trade was one among a plethora of moves then-general manager Dave Stewart undertook to hopefully dethrone the Los Angeles Dodgers (a team that, at that point, won three consecutive National League West titles) from atop the division. To further supplement the rotation behind their acquisition of Zack Greinke (who signed with Arizona the day before the trade occurred), Stewart sought out Miller, a 2015 All-Star who pitched to a career-low 3.02 ERA in 205.1 innings. His 3.02 ERA ranked 14th in all of baseball that season. While Miller was the headliner, Arizona also received Speier, who was recently traded to Atlanta from Detroit for Cameron Maybin. Speier pitched to a 2.86 ERA in Single A during the 2015 season.

To nab Miller away from Atlanta, Arizona parted with Swanson, who was Arizona’s first selection in the 2015 MLB Draft and the first overall player taken in the draft entirely. Additionally, Arizona parted with Inciarte and Blair. Inciarte hit for average, possessed 20-plus stolen base speed and could effectively play all over the outfield, while Blair was a high-octane prospect who pitched to a combined 2.32 ERA over the 2014 and 2015 season in Double A.

While the package might seem reasonable, it would in fact be a reach when looking at Miller through a more in-depth lens. While his ERA was in the upper echelon of baseball in 2015, his strikeouts per nine (K/9) was not; Miller’s 7.50 K/9 ranked 46th in the majors. His walks per nine inning (BB/9) numbers were even worse. His BB/9 of 3.20 was bottom-20 among all qualified starters (minimum of 150 innings pitched). Combining the peripherals showed a potentially dependable starter, but not a top of the rotation one. As Arizona eventually found out, Miller was not the 2015 All-Star once he arrived in the valley. From a combination of injuries, severe underperformance and strikeout and walk numbers going south, Miller pitched to a 6.35 ERA in 29 games in three seasons combined with Arizona and was non-tendered by them after the 2018 season.

Pittsburgh is not free from the criticism, either. After playing mediocre baseball through the first three months of the 2018 season, a strong July sailed the Buccos back into relevancy. In order to supplement the roster for the stretch-run, Pittsburgh decided to get a controllable pitcher that could be molded into a first-rate player in present and future seasons.

Enter Chris Archer.

While Archer shimmered with Tampa Bay from 2014-17 (he collectively pitched to a 3.66 ERA in over 800 innings during that span), the luster wore off in 2018. Archer, until he was traded to Pittsburgh, pitched to a 4.31 ERA. To Pittsburgh, however, they did not see a diamond in the rough; they saw a diamond that just needed to be polished. The Pirates believed that, under the tutelage of pitching coach Ray Searage, Archer could not only turn things around, but also develop a third pitch that remained absent from his arsenal even when he was effective with Tampa Bay. Adding a third pitch, in Pittsburgh’s eyes, would vault Archer to the next level and prevent overuse of his nasty slider. Additionally, Archer’s 2014 extension he signed with Tampa Bay (for six years and $25.5 million with two option years) was also a bargain Pittsburgh would be willing to invest in. 

The Pirates pulled the trigger on the trade and parted with Glasnow, Meadows and a player to be named later. The player to be named later would eventually become Baz, another explosive pitcher in Pittsburgh’s farm system.

The treasure Pittsburgh thought they stole from Tampa Bay, though, quickly turned into turmoil. Through the remainder of the 2018 season, Archer pitched nearly identical to when he was with Tampa Bay (4.30 ERA in 10 games started).

In 2019, however, everything bottomed out. In 23 games started for the Pirates, Archer pitched to a career-worst 5.19 ERA. While his K/9 was healthy (10.75), his HR/9 skyrocketed to 1.88 and his BB/9 ballooned to 4.14. Both areas would be career-lows. To make matters worse, Archer will not play in 2020 (should there be a season) due to undergoing surgery to relieve symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) on June 3.

Both teams came out of their respective deals very poorly, to say the least. However, the quality of prospects given up by Pittsburgh have turned out to be more productive than the haul given up by Arizona. Coupled with Pittsburgh being a small-market franchise (Pittsburgh has consistently ranked in the bottom-five in payroll), Pittsburgh has not been able to offset the players given up for Archer externally. As a result, the Pirates have marooned themselves of talent that could have given them cheaper, more productive and more quality players.

Bigger loser: Pittsburgh

On the flip side of the coin, the hauls Atlanta and Tampa Bay received have helped both franchises immensely. While Blair did not work out, Swanson and Inciarte for the Braves have provided solid defensive assistance at two premier positions in the infield and outfield, respectively. While Swanson still has much to work on with the lumber (in his past three seasons he has combined to slash .240/.314/.380), he has tapped into more power, as his Slugging Percentage of .422 last season was the first it exceeded .400 since his 2016 rookie season. While Inciarte only played in 65 games last season, from 2016-18 he averaged 148 games played, 22 stolen bases, and only struck out in 12.6% of his plate appearances, making him a marquee contact-oriented player in a more strikeout-driven league.

Both players for Atlanta have been solid, but Tampa Bay has them beaten. While Glasnow had brief cups of coffee in different pitching roles, 2019 was his first full season as a starter. Despite injury issues, through the 12 games started he pitched in he showed ace potential; he pitched to a 1.78 ERA with a 11.27 K/9, 2.08 BB/9 and .59 HR/9. Meadows, meanwhile, played in 138 games and was Tampa Bay’s best hitter, as the 25-year-old slugged 33 homeruns and combined for an On-base-Plus Slugging (OPS) of .922, the best on the team among qualified batters with a minimum of 100 plate appearances. While Baz has not pitched in the majors yet, the 20-year-old pitched to a 2.99 ERA in Single A last season and is consistently viewed as a top 100 prospect in all of baseball.

While Atlanta definitely scored big when they traded away Miller, Tampa Bay scored even bigger. Health permitting, Tampa Bay will arguably possess three quality major leaguers at their worst and three potential stars at their best. While Baz is still a couple years away from cracking a big-league roster, Glasnow and Meadows will be mainstays on it. Given that Tampa Bay is another small-market team, the pair’s combined team control through 2023 will give the team affordable and productive players that will fit into their budget.

Bigger winner: Tampa Bay

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