The Marlins Had a Good Week

The NL East is experiencing quite the arms race. The Braves have already signed two catchers, multiple relievers, and most recently, brought lefty Cole Hamels into the fold to add to their rotation. The Phillies, meanwhile, added Zack Wheeler on Wednesday in the largest free agent signing of the offseason to date. The Nationals and Mets have been relatively idle, though I’d expect both teams to make some noise before the offseason is over.

The division is a weird one. As of today, those four NL East teams include the representation of the reigning World Series champions, the back-to-back division winners, the best starting rotation in baseball (at the moment), and the team that has shown the most willingness to spend money on large contracts in each of the past two offseasons.

All of this, of course, excludes the Marlins, who are in the midst of a rebuild after finishing with the worst record in the National League. In the two full seasons since Derek Jeter took control as the team’s chief executive, the Marlins have lost 203 games, with the hope that a full teardown will lead to winning at some point in the near or distant future.

It’s a story we’ve heard all too often: the idea that tearing the team to shreds will lead to results in the future. In the meantime, the team maximizes its profits and demonstrates contempt for actually winning baseball games.

But, at least so far, the Marlins have taken a different approach. Rather than sit back and view the offseason from afar, as many other organizations seemingly do, they’ve been active. On Monday, the Marlins completely retooled half of their infield, claiming Jesús Aguilar off of waivers from the Rays and trading for Jonathan Villar from the Orioles. Both Aguilar and Villar carry considerable upside, and these are the types of players that a rebuilding team like the Marlins should be acquiring.

Aguilar was excellent at the plate with the Brewers in 2018, producing at a .274/.352/.539 clip with 35 homers and a 134 wRC+. He was about league-average defensively, too, and this combination resulted in a 3.1-WAR season. The results weren’t nearly the same in 2019, however, with his wRC+ dipping to 88, due mainly to a free-fall in his power hitting. The Rays picked him up about halfway through the season, and he hit better, but even then, his 101 wRC+ over his final 107 plate appearances was a far cry from the 2018 production.

Villar, on the other hand, experienced the best season of his career in 2019. Playing every game, he amassed 714 plate appearances and hit well, slashing .274/.339/.453 with 24 homers and a 107 wRC+. Villar’s speed and instincts made him the best baserunner in the league; he stole 40 bases and took the extra base 61% of the time. His defense wasn’t great, but it didn’t impact him too much — he produced 4.0 WAR, a bright spot for an Orioles team that was historically bad.

The Marlins know that it is hard to expect another 3-WAR season from Aguilar or another 4-WAR season from Villar. Steamer has relatively conservative 2020 projections for both — 0.8 WAR from Aguilar and 1.8 WAR from Villar. But there is considerable upside for both players to be worth more than that, and the Marlins know this. That’s why they made both of those moves in the first place.

The cost to bring Aguilar aboard will only be his contract as a first-time arbitration eligible player. For Villar, it will be his arbitration contract plus minor league lefty Easton Lucas, whom they traded to Baltimore to complete the deal.

The potential reward of bringing on both of these players is higher. Since Villar is a free agent at the end of 2020, it’s almost a given that he will be shopped at the trade deadline. If he can provide similar value on the basepaths while maintaining offensive production around league-average, teams should want to trade for him in time for the pennant race. Aguilar isn’t a free agent until after the 2022 season, and while power-focused bats aren’t necessarily the most desired in today’s game, Miami will have options at the trade deadline, next offseason, and perhaps even beyond that.

This reason is exactly why rebuilding teams should continue to add talent to their major league rosters. Neither Aguilar nor Villar have adverse effects on the Marlins’ long-term goals: International signing dollars and draft bonuses are capped — it’s not even as if teams can use their savings on big league talent elsewhere. Plus, the Marlins still won’t be good in 2020 and shouldn’t have to worry about falling outside of the top five in the draft order.

But in a league in which James Shields was once traded for Fernando Tatis Jr., Josh Fields was once traded for Yordan Alvarez, and Fernando Rodney was once traded for Chris Paddack, you never know what sort of impact the next innocuous deal could have on your future roster. That’s why it’s never a bad thing to add major league talent, even if you don’t plan on winning in the short-term.

Jesús Aguilar and Jonathan Villar may not be Marlins for more than a matter of months. They might not even fetch much back in a trade. But they make Miami more interesting, and they certainly provide options in 2020. Rebuilding teams often shy away from adding major league talent, but the Marlins might just prove that it still remains a worthwhile affair.





Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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vslyke
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Member

I think there’s an interesting article to be written by someone about the pros/cons of the following 2 approaches to a noncompetitive season:
1) Acquire veteran talent cheaply and hope to be able to flip it for prospects (i.e. these Marlins moves)
2) Play the young guys in your system (and that are available cheaply) and hope you run into something substantial (more in line with what the Rays or Astros did during their lean years)
Obviously, most teams will do some of both, but it would be interesting to hear more about when teams should pursue one strategy more.

HappyFunBall
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Member
HappyFunBall

It’s always going to be both. Even the deepest of farm systems isn’t going to produce 25 MLB-ready guys within a span of 2-3 years. A team 100% committed to youth is going to have to fill out some portion of the roster with cheap veterans.

But of the two, the former is the worse plan. Cheap veteran talent is such for a reason. It’s nice when those guys do bounce back and become tradeable, but even when they do a half-season rental of an expiring contract just doesn’t land premium prospects in a trade any more. Plenty often they don’t bounce back and end up being worthless. It’s the lottery ticket approach to investment strategy.

So to amend my first statement … it’s always going to be the youth plan in the long term, supplemented by cheap vets until the youth grows up.

jbarne06
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jbarne06

Signing veterans to cheap deals and flipping them for prospects seems like the smart move because you can build a winning culture in the low minors, keep control of your players for longer, and there’s a good chance that you can bring in some talent from those veterans.

If you bring up your young players early, you run the risk of destroying their confidence and ruining the game for them. And even if the players are ready, it is super depressing to get your ass handed to you every day, and low morale has a tendency to creep into other bad things. These guys are competitors and though it sounds like an old cliché (because it is) it is really important to build a “winning culture.” The psychological component of the game is often ignored by number crunchers. Ultimately, the game is played by humans and it’s essential to make sure these humans are in tip-top shape both physically AND mentally to win at the highest level.

emh1969
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emh1969

Meh, the psychological component is impossible to prove. And can work both ways. Prospect gets discouraged because the team won’t give him a chance and keeps signing washed up veterans.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

That #1 strategy is pretty much dead at this point because nobody wants to trade prospects for veterans anymore. Teams like the Phillies and Blue Jays have tried this for years and gotten very little to show for it. The one exception seems to be relievers.

MikeS
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Member
MikeS

Yeah, nobody is paying a premium for a 30+ year old position player at the deadline, but relievers can still bring back a return from a team who thinks they are a couple bullpen arms away from a championship. Teams should be trying to find younger veterans who were non-tendered and might become productive ball players with a change of scenery, like the White Sox did with James McCann, although I am not sure his success is sustainable. Guys like Tim Beckham and Addison Russell are worth a flier for a bad team without organizational depth in the infield. Not to trade at the deadline, but to fill a need over the next few years.

sadtrombone
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Member
sadtrombone

It’s the Carl Edwards Jr. move–those are the areas where it is worth bringing in a reliever. Teams like the Tigers should be taking fliers on guys like Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop (in theory, they should also be taking runs at guys like Blake Treinen and Craig Stammen, but those guys should have more options). A guy like that returns to form and you could get something for him.