The Fish market: What should Marlins do next?
Monday’s trade between the Tigers and Marlins — Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante for Jacob Turner plus two — captured our attention because it shored up some glaring weaknesses in a contending team, albeit at the expense of a potential future rotation cog. What escaped notice for the moment was the fact that the deal looked a whole lot like a white flag from the Marlins, who only a few weeks ago added Carlos Lee as they tried to reinvigorate their season, and only a few months ago ranked among the winter’s most visibly active teams. The rumor mill quickly blew up, and early on Wednesday, the Marlins made an even bigger deal, sending Hanley Ramirez and Randy Choate to the Dodgers in exchange for Nathan Eovaldi and a prospect. In case anyone had doubt, the honeymoon for the rebranded franchise is clearly over.
That shouldn’t surprise us, particularly given the cynicism with which owner Jeffrey Loria has always treated the fans of south Florida (to say nothing of the fans of Montreal), tearing down contenders and pocketing revenue-sharing money to turn a profit. To prepare for the team’s shiny new $634 million ballpark — 80 percent of which was funded by taxpayers under conditions so questionable that the Securities and Exchange Commission launched an investigation — the team name changed its moniker from Florida to Miami, with new color schemes to goose merchandise sales. Loria authorized team president Larry Bienfest to undertake a spending spree that nearly doubled the Opening Day payroll from $57.7 million in 2011 (24th in the majors) to $101.6 million in 2012 (10th), adding marquee free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell — but conspicuously avoiding no-trade clauses — and trading for problem child Carlos Zambrano and combustible manager Ozzie Guillen.
It was all primed to blow up, and blow up it has. The Marlins bellyflopped with an 8-14 record in April, and since going an MLB-best 21-8 in May, they’re 16-30, and are now seven games under .500, 12 1/2 out of first place in the NL East and eight back in the Wild Card at 45-52. Little more than half a season in, with Guillen having exploded several times and fans having failed to show up in droves (the team is 12th in the league in attendance, having been higher than 15th just one other time since 1998), Loria has pulled the plug. Rival executives say that everybody this side of Reyes (who signed a six-year, $106 million deal) and Giancarlo Stanton (who is under club control through 2016) may be available for the right price, though moving Buehrle (who signed a four-year, $58 million deal) is said to be a longshot. With Ramirez and Choate traded, here’s a look at their biggest remaining fish.
Ostensibly the Marlins’ ace, Johnson has had only a passing relationship with good health. In seven seasons (not including his 2005 cup of coffee), he has topped 180 innings just twice, in 2009 and 2010, and 150 innings just three times while undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2007 and battling a variety of elbow and shoulder ailments; last year, he was limited to just nine starts due to shoulder inflammation. He has avoided the disabled list this year, but his 4.14 ERA is a career worst, largely owing to a scorching .342 batting average on balls in play, while his homer, walk and strikeout rates (0.5, 2.6 and 7.9 per nine, respectively) are in the vicinity of his career marks. The 28-year-old righty is earning $13.75 million this year, and has been scouted by the Angels, Rangers and Red Sox, with the Blue Jays — who stop by every rummage sale — showing interest as well. Any team in the market for a starter less expensive than Zack Greinke is likely to consider him, though his injury history may make him a less appealing target than Ryan Dempster or James Shields. The Rangers, who are gunning for Grienke, are said to view Johnson as their only other alternative according to Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal. Meanwhile, MLB Network’s Peter Gammons says that the Marlins told teams they were willing to deal either Sanchez or Johnson, and would have to be blown away by an offer to move the latter.
The 29-year-old righty remains an enigma, a pitcher whose stuff doesn’t match the results, and one whom statheads have consistently expected to turn a corner based on the strength of his peripherals. From 2008-2011, Nolasco yielded 1.1 homers per nine but walked just 1.9 while striking out 8.0, rates that would have been expected to yield a 3.60 ERA according to the Fielding Independent Pitching formula. Instead he was lit for a 4.41 mark, due in part to a .313 BABIP that never regressed to the extent expected. Nolasco is again being bedeviled by a .310 BABIP, but now his strikeout rate has dipped to 5.7 per nine, its third straight year of falling; his ERA is 4.55, his FIP 4.12. Signed for $9 million this year and $11.5 million next year, he’s a pricey No. 4 starter who can eat innings but lacks upside, an alternative to the volatile Francisco Liranio, perhaps, but not a Dempster or a Johnson. No teams have been specifically connected to him, but it would hardly be a surprise to see one such as the Orioles or the White Sox take the plunge given injuries elsewhere in their rotations.
There isn’t a whole lot to say about the 36-year-old former slugger that hasn’t already been said in this space. The short version is that from 1999-2009, he mashed 307 homers while batting .291/.344/.503 for the White Sox, Brewers, Rangers and Astros, but his career took a downturn in 2010, and now he’s basically a singles hitter and a lousy first baseman instead of a lousy leftfielder. Lee has hit just .272/.336/.388 with six homers in 342 plate appearances this year, including a .204/.338/.278 line with one homer in 65 PA since being traded to Miami. The Dodgers, who pursued him prior to the trade, still need a first baseman, but Lee is said to have rejected them once, and isn’t likely to reconsider. Meanwhile, the first base market is even thinner since Edwin Encarnacion re-upped with the Blue Jays, so there may well be some team out there who believes it needs Lee.
Signed to a three-year, $27 million deal despite a plummeting strikeout rate, Bell has pitched so badly (6.05 ERA, with 4.9 walks per nine) that he has lost the closer job not once but twice. Conspicuously absent from my trade deadline previews was a long list of contenders in search of closers; no team appears to be emphasizing that as their primary need, and none appears to need a pitcher who looks more like a reclamation project than a solution, though the Red Sox are said to have discussed him, mainly as ballast in a Ramirez-for-Carl Crawford swap idea that obviously isn’t happening now. Short of releasing him and swallowing nearly all of his remaining salary, the Marlins are basically stuck with him.
The acquisition of Lee was triggered by the team’s impatience with Sanchez. The 28-year-old, who hit a combined .269/.346/.437 in 2010 and ’11, with 19 home runs in each season, is hitting just .202/.250/.306, and is now serving his second Triple-A stint. Sanchez was on track to be arbitration eligible this winter, and a free agent after the 2015 season, but his latest minor league stint could prevent him from accruing enough service time to remain on that schedule. That actually increases his value; because he’s cost-controlled for so long, he could fetch a more attractive return from another team. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a value-minded general manager such as Toronto’s Alex Anthopoulos or Oakland’s Billy Beane sniffing around, less with an eye towards what Sanchez can provide this season than what his future holds — though such a deal may not happen until the offseason.