Today marks three years since the blockbuster that sent a former (and future) Cy Young winner across leagues. The Rays dealt Blake Snell to the Padres in the late evening of December 27, 2020, bringing back a four-player prospect package. Luis Patiño headlined the return, which also included Blake Hunt, former top prospect Francisco Mejía and 2020 third-round draftee Cole Wilcox.
The deal came as something of a surprise, as the Rays weren’t under huge financial pressure to move Snell. Despite the controversy surrounding Kevin Cash’s decision to lift Snell in Game 6 of that year’s Fall Classic, Tampa Bay could’ve held the southpaw into the following season. Snell was under contract for respective salaries of $10.5MM, $12.5MM and $16MM covering the 2021-23 campaigns.
Nevertheless, the Tampa Bay front office felt the prospect return was too strong to pass up. Patiño was viewed as one of the sport’s most talented pitching prospects despite struggling in a brief MLB debut that season. Hunt was a borderline Top 100 minor leaguer at the time. Mejía’s stock had fallen from its peak as he struggled against big league pitching, but he was only entering his age-25 season and had less than three years of MLB service. Wilcox was viewed by many evaluators as a first-round talent that year, only dropping to the third because of a lofty bonus demand.
The deal didn’t pan out at all as the Rays had envisioned. While Snell has had a volatile career, he recaptured the ace-caliber upside he’d shown in Tampa Bay. After turning in a 4.20 ERA over 27 starts during his first year with the Friars, he rebounded to post a 3.38 mark in 2022. The cumulative 3.79 ERA he managed across 256 2/3 innings was solid, although it didn’t hint at the Cy Young level he’d reach in 2023.
Snell didn’t start the ’23 campaign well. He owned a 5.48 ERA with a strikeout rate just under 24% through the first month. After a slight uptick in strikeouts and a 3.82 mark in May, Snell kicked off a four-month stretch as the most dominant pitcher on the planet. From June 1 on, he struck out 35% of batters faced and allowed 1.23 earned runs per nine. His 1.54 ERA after the All-Star Break is the 12th-lowest second half rate since 2000 (minimum 75 innings).
The dominating finish led Snell to cruise to a second career Cy Young. He was a near-unanimous choice as the NL’s top pitcher after posting an MLB-best 2.25 ERA through 180 innings. Snell hit free agency and seems unlikely to return to a San Diego organization that has cut spending. Assuming he signs elsewhere in the coming weeks, he concludes his time as a Padre with a 3.15 ERA while striking out 31.5% of opponents in 436 2/3 frames.
As a team, San Diego didn’t have the kind of success they envisioned. They reached the postseason just once in the last three years. A second-half collapse cost them a playoff berth in 2021. They rebounded with a trip to the NLCS in ’22 but finished 82-80 last season. A strong final couple weeks ostensibly brought them within a couple games of a playoff spot, but the 2023 club was more or less finished by the end of August.
One can debate whether the Friars should’ve more aggressively marketed Snell, Juan Soto and Josh Hader at the deadline. A fringe contender at the time, they elected to add around the margins rather than move their top impending free agents or Soto (whose arbitration price tag they knew was rising). As a team that exceeded the luxury tax threshold, they’ll only receive picks after the fourth round as compensation for losing Snell and Hader, each of whom rejected a qualifying offer.
San Diego’s subsequent decisions don’t negate how well they fared in the Snell trade, however. That turned out to be one of the more lopsided deals of the past few seasons. No one in the return found much success in Tampa Bay. Three of the four are out of the organization entirely.
Patiño saw MLB action in each season from 2021-23. He logged 101 1/3 innings as a Ray, turning in a 5.24 ERA. Patiño’s control hasn’t developed as expected and he has struggled with home runs throughout his MLB tenure. The Rays moved on at the deadline, sending him to the White Sox for cash. He ended up back in San Diego last week; the Friars claimed him when Chicago put him on waivers. He’s out of options, so he’ll either need to open the season on the MLB roster or be made available to other teams yet again.
Neither of the other prospects involved have reached the majors. Hunt has slowly climbed the minor league ladder, hitting at a roughly league average level at each stop. The Rays didn’t want to carry him on the 40-man roster, yet Hunt was eligible for minor league free agency after this season. Tampa Bay dealt him to the Mariners (who did add him to the 40-man) for 2022 eighth-round pick Tatem Levins last month. Wilcox remains in the organization but underwent Tommy John surgery late in the ’21 season. He returned to post a 5.23 ERA in 25 starts at Double-A this year. He went unselected in the Rule 5 draft a few weeks ago.
Mejía, arguably the fourth piece of the return at the time, had the most success for Tampa Bay. The switch-hitting catcher had a .260/.322/.414 batting line in 84 games in 2021. His offense cratered over the last two years, though, as he hit .237/.262/.387 in 459 plate appearances over that stretch. The Rays designated him for assignment in August. He reached free agency at year’s end and signed a minor league deal with the Angels last week.
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