Starling the Marlin: Miami Goes Shopping

Two years makes a tradition: it’s now a ritual for the Marlins and Diamondbacks to make an intriguing trade leading up to the deadline. Last year it was Zac Gallen for Jazz Chisholm, and this year the Marlins are acquiring Starling Marte:

When the Diamondbacks traded for Marte this offseason, they did so for two reasons. First, they wanted to make the playoffs. That one hasn’t gone according to plan; after starting 3-8, they briefly righted the ship at 13-11 but have since gone on a cold streak. They entered today at 14-21 and only a 9.9% chance of reaching the postseason per our playoff odds. Short seasons are tough: a cold spell can upset the best-laid plans.

The Marlins, on the other hand, came into the year as playoff longshots. After a surprising run following their COVID-induced layoff, however, they’re 14-15 and are currently in playoff position. We still don’t like their odds — we give them a 22.7% chance of holding onto a spot — but that’s the best shot at playing October baseball they’ve had in years, and Marte will help immediately.

But that’s not the only reason the Diamondbacks traded for Marte. He still has a club option for one more year at $10.5 million (it’s $12.5 million but with a $2 million buyout) after signing an extension with the Pirates. That made him more than a one-year rental; two years of above-average center field play for reasonable rates is an enticing package.

The Marlins could use the center field help both this year and next. They’ve given nine starts to Magneuris Sierra (career .251/.295/.290), seven to utilityman Jon Berti (better suited for infield or a corner), and nine to Monte Harrison (a galling 54.5% strikeout rate in his major league debut). Even that overstates their depth; Sierra, who was putting together his best season yet, is on the IL with a strained hamstring.

In other words, Miami isn’t exactly swimming in center field options. Marte is off to a tremendous start, walking more than ever while maintaining his usual excellent strikeout avoidance. It’s been at the expense of power thus far — his 26.9% hard-hit rate is his lowest since Statcast data became available in 2015 — but the overall package has worked out quite well. He’ll give the team a higher floor and more roster flexibility, which is a boon given their busy remaining schedule and the razor-thin margins that will likely be the difference between a postseason appearance and a fruitless campaign.

One interesting decision point: the Marlins don’t currently profile as contenders in 2021. That’s subject to change, of course, but Marte’s greatest leverage for them will be this year, when every win might be the difference between making and missing the playoffs. That raises a novel possibility: the Fish could keep Marte for this season, then either decline his option or pick it up and trade him, helping to defray the cost of his acquisition.

That cost is a mixture of present-day upside and intriguing potential. Caleb Smith, the player with the most major league experience, is an odd duck. He’s a lefty with a funky fastball, a four-seamer with heavy arm-side fade. In 2019, that fastball and a solid slider carried him to a 1-WAR season — he ran decent strikeout and walk numbers, but he surrendered a ton of fly balls (and home runs) and managed only 153.1 innings in 28 starts.

Smith hasn’t added to his resume in 2020 because he made only one start before landing on the COVID-19 IL. He hasn’t yet returned, though he’s been throwing at the Marlins’ facility in Jupiter, so the Diamondbacks should get at least a few starts out of him this year. He’s under team control through 2023 and should do a good job back-filling their rotation with Robbie Ray gone and Mike Leake unlikely to return.

Smith’s main value to the Diamondbacks is his affordability. He hasn’t racked up impressive counting stats, and though he’s eligible for arbitration this year, he’s only pitched three innings so far and as such is unlikely to cost much. If he can continue cobbling together average-looking run prevention numbers, that’s an economical piece, a useful bit player to surround the core of young talent the team has assembled in the past few years.

The other two players headed to the Diamondbacks are more speculative. Humberto Mejía was added to the 40-man roster due to Rule 5 considerations, then exposed to the majors (he’d never previously pitched above A-ball) when the team was simply trying to find enough live arms to start games. He predictably struggled — a 12.2% walk rate and 6.93 FIP in 10 innings — but is a possible future bullpen piece. He throws a riding, spin-heavy four-seamer and a fun curveball. He sits 92-93 mph right now, but if he can add to that out of the ‘pen, that might work even if he never develops average command.

Julio Frias, the final player in the deal, is a Rule 5 eligible pitcher who also hasn’t yet pitched above A ball. He throws hard — 91-95 mph and touching 97 — and has some of the largest horizontal break in the minors (Eric Longenhagen comped the pitch to recent Yankees draft pick T.J. Sikkema). His command is… well, there’s a reason he made it through the Rule 5 process unclaimed. The Diamondbacks can stash him for a year and see if he grows into some command, but he’ll need to improve on that to be playable. He’s likely relief-only but has mostly worked as a starter so far.

For the Diamondbacks, this dance didn’t exactly work out. They sent out Liover Peguero, a 19-year-old shortstop who is now Pittsburgh’s No. 6 prospect, and an intriguing arm in Brennan Malone (now the Pirates’ No. 8 prospect). They got 30-ish games of excellent performance from Marte — useless to them in the end given that they’re likely to miss the playoffs — then got a decent starter and two lottery tickets out of the deal. Their return feels light unless they were treating Marte as a rental — which is possible if free agent salaries dip precipitously this offseason.

For the Marlins, it’s a fun two-way play. Smith wasn’t going to help them enough this year, and they’re in a position where wins in 2020 are more valuable than wins in 2021 (and likely 2022). Mejía and Frias are basically bulk arms; the way to succeed with players like that is basically by acquiring as many as possible and seeing if they pan out. If free agency proceeds somewhat normally, they’ll be able to get at least that much back for Marte this offseason if they choose to deal him. If the market falls apart, they can simply decline the option and move on.

There’s one key footnote to this trade. The Marlins are moving closer, ever closer, to having rostered, at one point or another, every active player with “Arlin” in their name. Starlin Castro and Jarlin García have since left, and Bubba Starling is for now a lifetime Royal, but they’re three-fourths of the way there. I can’t credibly claim that there’s a plan behind this, but I will note that they have also rostered the only two players in baseball whose names contain the letters J, T, and R in succession — J.T. Realmuto and JT Riddle. Maybe Derek Jeter is really into symbology.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

This is another time where I believe you should stick more to your initial evaluations. The Cardinals gave up a lot for Marte and he played very well, even better than the last few years. So then the Cardinals fall out of contention and trade him for a pitcher who isn’t very good and a couple other guys who are on the rule 5 bubble for a bad team? I think they got the better of the Gallen trade, but there is a pretty good chance the Marlins could trade Marte for more than they gave up this offseason if they wanted to. They really did not need to deal Marte now.

Bartolo Cologne
2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

He was playing for the D’Backs.

2 years ago

oh man I got Arizona and St Louis and Cardinals all mixed up in my head. My apologies.

It’s funny. I haven’t watched the NFL in about 10 years.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yeah, I’m always amazed how Eli Manning won two World Series rings with the Giants and is now making up jingles in insurance commercials.