MLB trade grades: Rays swing deal with Guardians to add arm in Aaron Civale

By Andy McCullough, Rustin Dodd and Stephen J. Nesbitt

Guardians get: Kyle Manzardo, 1B
Rays get: Aaron Civale, RHP

Andy McCullough: There is a reflexive instinct among baseball pundits to automatically praise the roster maneuvers of the Tampa Bay Rays. The front office has earned that credibility. The Guardians, though, have developed a similar reputation for savviness. Thus this deal presents something of a challenge, as both clubs took a risk in making it. The Rays are betting that Civale’s career-best 2.34 ERA is not the product of smoke, mirrors and batted-ball luck. And the Guardians are betting that Manzardo, one of the best hitting prospects in Tampa Bay’s system, hasn’t stalled out as a hitter. Both could be right!

Civale, a 28-year-old righty, provides stability for a Rays rotation that has been sideswiped by injuries all season. He is under team control through 2025, which provides Tampa Bay with some depth for the coming seasons. But Civale is far from a sure thing. He has never made more than 21 starts in a season. There is a 1.21-run gap between his ERA and his fielding-independent ERA. His strikeout numbers are down and his walk rate has risen. The Rays tend to excel at finding underperforming players, fiddling with the knobs and striking gold. In Civale’s case, it will be more about keeping him on the tightrope he has walked all season.

Manzardo, a second-round pick in 2021, rocketed through the Rays system last year, slugging .617 between Class-A Bowling Green and Double-A Montgomery. He was batting a more pedestrian .238 with a .442 slugging percentage for Triple-A Durham this season before being sidelined by a shoulder injury. He became expendable given Tampa Bay’s surplus of position-player talent and lack of openings on the big-league roster, where Yandy Díaz is under contract through 2026. Manzardo, Keith Law wrote before this season, “is plenty valuable as he is — someone who might hit .300-.320 with walks and doubles while playing above-average defense at first.”

Rays: B-
Guardians: B+

Rustin Dodd: Everything Andy wrote above is true, so let’s put it simpler terms: The Guardians need a guy who can rake. The Guardians know how to re-stock their pitching supply. So they sent Civale to Tampa Bay for a guy who many people think can rake.

This has all the hallmarks of the Cleveland front office: The Guardians are dealing from an area of surplus (pitching) and moving on from Civale when he’s still under club control for two more seasons — when he can still net a prospect as ballyhooed as Manzardo.

A second-round pick in 2021 out of Washington State, Manzardo was a consensus top 100 prospect before the season. He was coming off a terrific full-season debut for the Rays, slugging .617 between High A and Double A, and the performance was one reason The Athletic’s Keith Law ranked him No. 81 in his top 100. Manzardo draws high marks for discipline — he walked nearly as much as he struck out last year — and he continued the profile this season while his batting average sagged a bit at Triple-A Durham.

The Rays, meanwhile, had one of the stronger rotations in baseball but were a little thin at the back end. Civale should improve their chances to win the AL East, which would greatly improve their odds to win the pennant and advance to the World Series.

Manzardo might seem like a slight overpay for Civale — though at least one formula would beg to differ — but the Rays have a pitching apparatus that rivals the one in Cleveland, so you can expect Civale to put up an ERA in the high 2.00s and low 3.00s for as long as he’s in a Rays uniform.

Rays: A
Guardians: A

Stephen J. Nesbitt: The Guardians made no secret of their willingness to move Civale despite flirting with first place because, for one thing, dealing a starter is their quickest path to bettering their lineup, and, for another, Civale is much more of a question mark than his 2.34 ERA might suggest.

To be clear, the 28-year-old had been fantastic this season, just like he was when he broke into the league back in 2019. But his effectiveness has waxed and waned throughout his MLB career. He was hit hard in 2020, then dogged by injuries in 2021 and 2022. Civale has pitched more than 100 innings in only one MLB season, topping out at 124 1/3 in 2021. So, for as valuable as a starter with two more seasons of club control is, Civale is not without flaws. But the Rays surely have a plan to use him strategically down the stretch, first to fill their rotation and then to deepen their dangerous and versatile pitching staff in the playoffs. Unlike many of their top arms, he’s not a swing-and-miss magician. He mixes six pitches and misses barrels.

Manzardo is an excellent add for a Guardians team searching for its first baseman of the future. He fits their mold: A good defender with supreme on-base skills and some pop from the left side. So, while it’ll cost their grade a bit to be dealing a starter amid what should be a playoff push, I think the Guardians have their eyes on 2024 and beyond, and odds are Civale wasn’t going to make or break their chances this season.

This one hurts both sides quite a bit, but should also help them in the coming years.

Rays: B
Guardians: B

(Top photo of Aaron Civale: David Richard / USA Today)

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