The current season for the Miami Marlins has a lot in common with the Fish’s 2012 season, and it’s looking more like the pending off-season will have the same salary-dump flavor that the 2012-13 off-season did.
Heading into the 2012 season, Miami made a big splash in the free agent market to augment what they believed was an existing corps of regulars ready to win at that time. The Marlins signed closer Heath Bell, starting pitcher Mark Buehrle and shortstop José Reyes to long-term, big-money contracts during the winter meetings that December. They hired Ozzie Guillén to manage the team.
The in-season results were 69 wins and 93 losses. Bell floundered like much of the rest of the team. Guillén managed to piss everyone in Miami off before the season even started. Mercifully, the 2012 season ended with the Marlins sitting in the cellar of the National League East division. The drama wasn’t over, however.
Actually, the overhaul of the roster began during the 2012 season. Miami sent Hanley Ramírez to the Los Angeles Dodgers along with Randy Choate before the non-waiver trade deadline. Shortly after the 2012 season ended, Miami sent Emilio Bonifacio, John Buck, Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and Reyes to the Toronto Blue Jays. Later in the winter, Bell was dealt to the Arizona Diamondbacks. They started paying Guillén not to manage the team, something the team is still doing.
The spin out of the Marlins’ front office was that something drastic had to be done quickly to prevent the financially-strapped franchise which had just christened a tax-funded stadium from wasting money on a team which proved it could not win. A 25-man Opening Day payroll of just under $58 million in 2011 rose to over $101 million in 2012, then shot back down to under $51 million for 2013. Stick with us while these new kids grow, Miami’s brass said, and in 2015 we will be ready to compete again.
The 2014-15 off-season arrived, and the ETA for the Marlins’ promise of winning baseball in South Florida hurled ever closer. A better-than-expected 2014 season, thanks to a 77-85 record, contributed to Miami’s belief that it was just a few pieces away from being a wild card contender at worst. Like in 2011-12, the Marlins went about adding those pieces.
Anthony DeSclafani, one of the pieces acquired from Toronto in the trade of December 2012, was flipped to the Cincinnati Reds to acquire starting pitcher Mat Latos. Andrew Heaney, a home-grown pitching prospect, was sent to the Dodgers for Dee Gordon and Dan Haren. Miami acquired David Phelps and Martín Prado from the New York Yankees for Nathan Eovaldi, a pitcher acquired from the Dodgers in the Choate/Ramírez trade.
The Fish finished the off-season by signing Ichiro Suzuki and Michael Morse to free-agent deals. While the salary hike from the 2014 to 2015 seasons was nowhere near as drastic as from 2011 to 2012, the 25-man Opening Day payroll for 2015 is still the highest since 2012 by a good margin, and the second-highest (topped only by that 2012 season) for the Marlins in this century.
Going into play on Sat., July 25, Miami sits at 41-56, 11 games back of the NL-East-division-leading Washington Nationals. The Fish are a half game even further back of the San Francisco Giants for the NL’s second wild card spot. Much like in 2012, the proximity of the non-waiver trade deadline has brought on the commencement of the salary dump.
Eerily similar to 2012, one of the Marlins’ issues was the sudden collapse of a formerly reliable closer. Miami signed Steve Cishek to a one-year, $6.65 million deal back in January to avoid arbitration. Cishek struggled early to close out games, was sent down, A.J. Ramos took over closer duties, and Carter Capps nailed down his spot as the setup man. Cishek did make his way back up, but yesterday was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. Because St. Louis assumed all of the remainder of Cishek’s contract, and Cishek’s relative value in comparison to that contract, the Marlins got very little in return.
Cishek was the fifth-highest-paid Miami player this season, a spot now occupied by outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. Other current Marlins players who are in trade rumor discussions just happen to be the four guys ahead of Stanton on the 2015 salary list, and all four of them are players who were acquired to bolster the chances for success this season. In order of highest 2015 salary, they are Prado, Haren, Latos and Morse.
The best trade candidate of the four afore-mentioned players is Haren. He is scheduled to become a free agent at the end of this season, and couldn’t be any more economical, as the Dodgers are paying all of his 2015 salary. He has a winning record on a losing team and a 3.51 ERA through 20 starts. Trading Haren would make sense for both Miami and any team acquiring him. Trading Haren would be a major financial benefit for the Marlins, as they could keep the rest of the $10 million that the Dodgers sent over to pay his salary, provided an acquiring team would agree to take on all the remaining value of his contract.
Latos is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, so it would be preferential to get something for him while Miami can. The Fish are on the hook for one more season for both Prado and Morse, however, with a combined price tag of $16 million (the Yankees agreed to pay $3 million of Prado’s 2016 salary).
All three of these players haven’t performed in proportion to their current salary hits, especially for a low-revenue team like the Marlins. Prado has spent time on the disabled list and his batting average (AVG) through 71 games this season is .042 below his 2014 AVG. Morse has spent some time in the minors due to struggles at the plate. Morse’s temporary demotion may benefit the franchise financially as well, as his contract includes a $250,000 bonus for each 550 major-league at-bats recorded.
Latos has a 4.48 earned run average (ERA) through 15 starts. Considering the contract situations of Latos, Morse and Prado in proportion to their on-field achievements, it would be hard to criticize Miami for dealing any/all of them.
Even if the Marlins aren’t able to send Haren, Latos, Morse and/or Prado packing this week, the return of the same philosophy which drove the actions of the 2012-13 off-season is evident. The dismantling of the roster this time around may not be as comprehensive. Stanton and Christian Yelich are both signed to long-term deals. Henderson Álvarez won’t be eligible for free agency until the end of the 2017 season. Capps, José Fernandez, Gordon and Ramos are under club control through the 2018 season. Miami has the exclusive rights to Jarred Cosart until 2020. J.T. Realmuto and Justin Bour are handcuffed until 2021.
If José Ureña and Justin Nicolino are deemed major-league ready to join the rotation in 2016, that will fill out a very young and inexpensive starting pitching corps for the Marlins for the immediate future. The same could be said of nearly the entire team without the afore-mentioned quartet of players whom Miami has made no secret about its desires to ship out.
Would the Marlins stop at just those four players, however? The organization’s history of fire sales makes that question legitimate. Buster Olney has already revealed Miami’s willingness to deal center fielder Marcell Ozuna, who like Cosart, won’t be eligible for free agency until 2020. To be thorough, the Marlins did try to extend Ozuna this past off-season, but Ozuna declined. Lefty reliever Mike Dunn, under contract for one more season and a 2016 salary of $3.45 million, is another question mark.
Trading Ozuna would be right in keeping with the same philosophy that has been in place for the Fish since the mid-point of the 2012 season. He hasn’t performed up to expectations, and while he isn’t expensive right now ($545,000 2015 salary), as a Scott Boras client who had put together two solid seasons going into this campaign, he likely could get very costly in the future. Miami would simply be choosing not to delay the inevitable by dealing him now.
The 2015 salary dump began yesterday with the Cishek trade. It will be interesting to watch just how deep the Fish swim into their roster to cut salary before the 2016 season begins.