Steven Souza Jr. is Saving One of Baseball’s Worst Recent Trades from Disaster

In December, 2014, the Washington Nationals, Tampa Bay Rays and San Diego Padres pulled off a three-team, 11-player deal.

In hindsight, the most relevant players involved were Trea Turner and Wil Myerswho left the Friars and Rays and headed for Washington and San Diego, respectivelyand Steven Souza Jr., who went from the Nats to Tampa Bay.

At first blush, the trade was rightly regarded as among the most lopsided in recent memory. 

The Nationals got Turner, a speedy up-and-coming stud who finished second in National League Rookie of the Year balloting in 2016.

The Padres netted Myers, who blasted 28 home runs and made the All-Star team last season.

Souza, meanwhile, hit .225 and .247 in his first two seasons with Tampa Bay and underwent hip surgery in September 2016.

Now, suddenly, Souza is making the swap look far less egregious for the Rays. 

Through 107 games, he's slashing .267/.367/.510 with 24 home runs and boasts 3.3 WAR, per FanGraphs' calculation. 

He didn't qualify for the Midsummer Classic, but he should have if you ask his skipper.

"We've been talking about All-Stars a lot lately, and he was probably right on the borderline of putting together an All-Star first half," said Rays manager Kevin Cash, per Roger Mooney of the Tampa Bay Times. "What he's done offensively, defensively, I don't know where we'd be without him."

Here's what Tampa Bay has done with Souza: Amass a 58-57 record, which puts it just one game off the pace for the second American League wild-card slot.

Not bad for baseball's perennial small-market underdogs, who are duking it out with the big-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox out East.

If you're looking for the key to Souza's success, it's plate discipline. 

The 28-year-old has hiked his walk rate from 6.6 percent in 2016 to 12.7 percent this year, while shaving his strikeout rate from 34 percent to 28.7 percent. He's also making hard contact 36 percent of the time, compared to 32.4 percent last season.

On defense, meanwhile, he makes plays like this:

On Sunday, he launched a walk-off home run against the Milwaukee Brewers that left his bat at 113.9 mph, the hardest-hit home run by a Rays player in the Statcast era, according to MLB.com's Connor Mount

"In those situations, I've really just tried to stick with my approach and hit nice line drives up the middle, and whatever happens, happens," Souza said after the epic dinger, per Mount.

Those are the type of platitudes you expect from an elite player, which Souza is fast becoming.

Opponents are taking notice, as SB Nation's Joshua Morgan explained on Monday:

"Souza is being shown the respect you would expect of one of the best performers this year. Pitchers are throwing almost five percent fewer pitches in the zone and 10 percent fewer first pitch strikes. This has led to Souza being in a hitters count for 31.7 percent of pitches he's faced."

Turner has been sidelined since late June by a fractured wrist. Myers is hitting .174 since the All-Star break. Suddenly, Souza looks like the best player in that maybe-not-so-lopsided 2014 trade.

That could change. Turner may yet blossom into a perennial All-Star, for example. Myers has flashed MVP potential. These things are always in flux.

Likewise, the Rays might not catch New York and Boston in the AL East, rendering Souza's exploits a mere footnote.

For now, though, he's riding highlighting up Statcast, convincingly embodying the role of a player on the rise and bringing Tampa Bay with him.

            

All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

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