Jack Dickey of Deadspin.com took a look back at the famous deal that brought Scott Kazmir to the Rays for Victor Zambrano. Dickey argues that while the results of the deal were certainly lopsided in favor of the Rays, the thinking behind the trade for the Mets was not as idiotic as most people believe.
“The Mets knew that Zambrano was actually better than he looked, and that he had a high ceiling. He struck out hitters at a nice clip—seven per nine—and simply walked and hit too many. He was young enough (28), with good stuff. A worthwhile gamble…Regrettably, Zambrano just didn’t pitch very well as a Met. He got hurt. You can blame the Mets doctors and the snake-oil salesmen in Tampa…When they dealt him, the Mets knew Kazmir well, and had every reason to believe they knew Zambrano well. They had “overvalued” and “undervalued” exactly right…”
This thinking makes sense on the surface, but it is also flawed. And it also explains perfectly the one shortcoming of the Tampa Bay Rays that they will never be able to overcome. That is, player A may be a better value than player B, but that doesn’t necessarily mean player A is better than player B.
Take Evan Longoria and Alex Rodriguez. If the Rays had a choice between a 22-year old Longoria or a 22-year old A-Rod, and their respective contracts, the Rays are still taking Longoria. He is, and will be, the better value given his team-friendly contract. But Longoria will never be as good a player as Rodriguez.
In the Zambrano-for-Kazmir trade, maybe Zambrano was undervalued. And maybe Kazmir was overhyped. But it was fairly obvious, that in his late-20s, Zambrano wasn’t going to suddenly learn to throw strikes on a consistent basis. So, even though this might have been a buy-low, sell-high trade, the low was never going to surpass the high in talent.
This is not to knock the Rays and their business model. To be successful with a low payroll, they have to find value. And that is what separates them from the rest of the mid- and low-payroll clubs.
But while they may be more efficient than the Yankees and Red Sox, that doesn’t mean the Rays model is better than the models employed by the high-payroll clubs. It just levels the playing field.
Finding value is essential for teams like the Rays. But for a team with money, the goal is to acquire the best players. Value is just a secondary concern.
The idea of trading Kazmir may have made sense to a lot of clubs. But to the Mets, it just meant trading a known commodity for one with an upside. And that is a risky move for a team that can afford to minimize risk.