The Marlins Could Be Tanking the Right Way

Christian Yelich is only of use to the Marlins now as a trade chip.
(Photo: Corn Farmer)

There has been considerable handwringing this offseason about the way the new Marlins ownership group has gone about dismantling any hopes of a competitive club the near future. The front office inherited a borderline playoff contender — one featuring the reigning NL MVP, as well as multiple young, talented, and cost-controlled players — and made no attempt to build a winner in what should be a wide-open Wild Card race in 2018 as well as a wide-open National League East at the start of the following season.

That the Marlins chose a different path is unfortunate for baseball and unfortunate for long-suffering Marlins fans — not to mention the potential Marlins fans who could have been cultivated with a commitment to winning in the long term.

Now that it’s clear that the Marlins have chosen not to field a competitive team in the near term, it is time to examine their current options with J.T. Realmuto and Christian Yelich and begin to analyze their decisions up to this point. As Dave Cameron noted in the aftermath of the Giancarlo Stanton trade to the Yankees, the Marlins did okay with their market value salary dumps.

From Cameron’s piece:

But for how easy it has been to make fun of the Marlins over the years, I think we should acknowledge that their two salary-dump trades so far haven’t been terrible baseball trades. Dee Gordon was moved for some legitimate prospects, and Stanton brought back at least one guy who could turn into something special. The Marlins are dumping salary, but these moves haven’t been just straight salary dumps.

We could perhaps criticize the Marlins for not trying to get better prospects in the Gordon deal, perhaps by offering to offset some of his guaranteed money, but that is a small misstep rather than a major miscalculation. The way in which the Giancarlo Stanton trade unfolded suggests the team has pursued value. Consider: they agreed to assume some of the burden of Stanton’s contract, and that was after Stanton had nullified a (presumably superior) deal with the Cardinals. Any quibbles about the specific trades are minor. The philosophy that has led to their fire sale is the issue. Once choosing that path, however, the Marlins have generally behaved reasonably.

Then, of course, the Marlins traded away Marcell Ozuna for Sandy Alcantara, Daniel Castano, Zac Gallen, and Magneuris Sierra. While I typically set a low bar for the Marlins — and am surely not the only one to do so — they also didn’t insist on sending a bad contract to St. Louis in exchange for a lesser return. If Alcantara becomes an All-Star, Sierra turns into Ender Inciarte, and Gallen pitches at the end of the rotation, this trade will look great for the Marlins. If, however, Alcantara becomes a middle reliever, Sierra turns into Terrance Gore, and Gallen fails to stick in the big leagues, the trade is going to end up a bad one. But that’s also sort of true with most trades of this nature. The Marlins took the best deal they believed they could get for a player under control for just two more seasons.

If you include trade deadline additions Merandy Gonzalez and Brayan Hernandez, plus top draft picks Brian Miller and Trevor Rogers, the Marlins have acquired roughly 10 of their top-15 prospects in the last few months. The system wasn’t good before, but it is now a lot better than it was, and it has the potential of being even better in short order by trading the two players of interest remaining on the roster.

Over at The Athletic, Ken Rosenthal urges the Marlins to commit to a full rebuild by trading Realmuto and Yelich. If the Marlins are going to try and win at any time in the next few years, it is hard to argue with Rosenthal’s thesis, and the Marlins appear willing to continue performing deals like the Ozuna one, getting the best package possible.

From Rosenthal’s piece:

Both Yelich and Realmuto are young, affordable and productive — baseball’s new Triple Crown. The Marlins, rival clubs say, want massive packages for each. They should want massive packages. Their primary motivation is not to cut payroll, as it was in the Gordon and Stanton trades. They do not want to dilute their returns by attaching third baseman Martin Prado, second baseman Starlin Castro or any other high-salaried player to Yelich or Realmuto, sources say. No, the Marlins want the best prospects they can acquire; one rival executive says that for Yelich they are trying to beat what the White Sox obtained from the Boston Red Sox for Sale.

With regard to rebuilding — or tanking, if you want to use the more loaded term — the two clearest recent examples are surely the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, also the last two World Series winners. Ahead of the 2012 season, both clubs hired a new architect for their respective organization: Jeff Luhnow in the Astros’ case and Theo Epstein in the Cubs’. The rebuilds for each org were complete by 2015. Those teams are the model, but that model is also difficult to reproduce. Houston went bare bones with awful teams, but their draft picks played key roles in their turnaround. The Cubs, meanwhile, took a team with a top-five payroll and ended up near the bottom-third before once again splurging on high-priced free agents to take them to the top.

In his piece, Rosenthal notes how the Cubs retained Anthony Rizzo and the Astros kept Jose Altuve through the rebuilding process — a road map, perhaps, should the Marlins choose not to move Yelich. Those examples, though, aren’t really aren’t quite the same. Both of those players signed extensions during the 2013 season, essentially a year and a half into the rebuild; both players were a greater distance from free agency (six-and-a-half years for Altuve, eight years for Rizzo) after the contracts; and both players weren’t all that good at the time of the contract.

J.T. Realmuto and Christian Yelich, meanwhile, are good right now. Realmuto is a free agent after 2020 with Yelich gone after 2022. If the Marlins are going to be good in 2020, it is not because they kept Realmuto and Yelich to build around. It will be because they obtained a mass of good, young players to replace them all over the diamond, got lucky on a few guys, and used their payroll flexibility to find free agents to push the club over the top.

Regardless, putting a good team on the field by 2020 is a bit aggressive. Expecting to win by 2020 with J.T. Realmuto and Christian Yelich but without significant outlays of cash on free agents is probably a pipe dream. The Astros and Cubs did nearly everything right and had a ton of luck. They made the playoffs in Year No. 4 of their new administrations. The Astros/Cubs method is not a guarantee of success, and multiple franchises are in the middle of their own rebuilds. It is near impossible for the Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies, and San Diego Padres to all be as successful as the Astros and Cubs. It takes incredible planning and a decent amount of good fortune to pull it off.

The Marlins aren’t going to fool fans, old or new, into believing the current team is a contender or that the Marlins are acting in good faith by keeping Realmuto and Yelich around. Derek Jeter and the Marlins might be fooling themselves if they think they can rebuild quickly with their current farm system and major-league roster. If the Marlins want fans to come to the park, they need to provide a winner. They had a window to invest in their current roster and see what came of it. They opted against that route, however. Now Realmuto and Yelich are surrounded by a team unlikely to win in the near term. Their greatest value to the Marlins is not as the stars of a team winning 70-75 games over the next few years. Their greatest value is as trade chips to try to bring a sustained winner to the fans of Miami, something no ownership group has tried there since the franchise began 25 years ago.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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4 years ago

they could be, but they would only ‘seem to be’ tanking the right way after these contemplated trades actually happen.

4 years ago
Reply to  awy

I think the cause for optimism for “tanking the right way” is that they didn’t try to attach any bad contracts to Ozuna on his way out the door. They could have easily done that and gotten less of a prospect return.

That doesn’t mean they won’t try to do that in the future, but it does say something.

Lee Stone
4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Ha! Given the tiny return, it seems like they should have included Prado. It would have made more sense.

Dave T
4 years ago
Reply to  Lee Stone

@Lee – please show your work (math) of calling that a “tiny return” for Ozuna. Working through the math of (1) projections for Ozuna from Steamer/ZiPS, (2) Ozuna’s expected arb salaries for his remaining two years of team control, and (3) the prospect rankings for the return from sources such as Longenhagen or, and the math of the return for Ozuna basically adds up (particularly if we make sure to use the same $ per WAR in prospect value charts that we use for valuing Ozuna).

There is a fair criticism – expressed by Dave Cameron, as just one example – from those who are skeptical of scouts’ rankings of Alcantara and Sierra. Some scouts and prospect rankers see the upside from tools (elite velocity and speed, respectively), while Cameron sees low floors due to concerns about command/control and hitting ability, respectively.

Some of the criticism, however – and I suspect that yours may be in this category – is based on refusing to accept that a player with only two remaining years of team control at high-ish arb salaries only has so much trade value, and similarly refusing to accept that Ozuna’s not going to net a trade return based on another team assuming that his career year in 2017 (4.8 fWAR) is a new baseline expectation for him.