The Miami Marlins committed the biggest individual fire sale trade perhaps in the history of the sport, sending away Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio, and John Buck along with $4 million to the Toronto Blue Jays for Yunel Escobar, Jeff Mathis, Henderson Alvarez, and prospects Jake Marisnick, Justin Nicolino, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Anthony DeSclafani. The Marlins accomplished a fire sale in just one move, trading away all but one of their largest salaries heading into 2013 along with any player who was tied to the Marlins for more than one season. For the team, this move was primarily a salary dump that aimed to erase any trace of the 2012 season having happened in the Marlins' history books.
Still, we do not simply analyze trades from visceral response, positive or negative. No matter how difficult this trade was to swallow, the Marlins did receive something in return, and as a result, we have to consider what the team got back before we rush to judgment from a strictly on-field and trade value perspective. Believe it or not, the team did trade a number of assets without a large number of surplus value, and that means that this trade may not seem as utterly lopsided as it initially appears.
We have discussed Johnson's trade value numerous times this offseason, so discussing it a lot more here would seem pointless. If we project Johnson to be worth four Wins Above Replacement (WAR) next season, we would expect him to put up $20 million in value while only being paid $13.75 million, yielding a surplus value of $6.25 million. One could even push that up to an even $7 million if you project a better bounce back from Johnson next season.
Reyes was the most surprising addition to the trade for a number of reasons. Not only was Reyes likely the best player traded, but he was also the most expensive player in the move, having $96 million left in his contract over the next five years. When the Marlins signed Reyes to his six-year contract, the team heavily back-loaded his contract in the last three seasons; Reyes is owed $70 million of the $96 million remaining in his final three seasons, including the $4 million buyout of his seventh-year option.
But how about the value of Reyes, the trade asset? It is reasonable to expect Reyes to be around a 3.5- to four-win player next season. Given this estimate and a reasonable 0.5-win per year decline over the next five seasons, Reyes would be worth between $69 million and $83.15 million in free agent value while being paid $96 million, yielding a net loss of $13 million to $27 million. Recall that the Marlins likely overpaid for Reyes in the first place by about $15 million at most, so this net loss as an asset is a reasonable number.
What does this mean? It means that the Marlins would have to pay to even out salary for Reyes to be a tradeable asset. In other words, including Reyes is a negative asset in a deal. This may sound odd given Reyes's skill, but essentially it means that teams should not be willing to pay for the right to pay for Reyes and his contract. This is an important aspect to consider given the nature of this trade.
Buehrle is in a similar boat as Reyes. Given his performance in his first (and now only) season as a Marlin, Buehrle is just a little off the track for performing up to the rest of his back-loaded contract. Buehrle was a 2.5- to three-win pitcher last season, and it seems reasonable to expect something similar from him next year given his metronome-like consistency over the entirety of his career. At that level of performance, you are looking at Buehrle being worth between $31.5 million and $39.5 million, while he is still owed $52 million in his deal. Like Reyes, Buehrle projects like a net negative asset between $12 million and $20 million.
Bonifacio has two seasons of team control left, and this season MLB Trade Rumors has him projected at $2.5 million salary. Assume that next year he earns $4 million, presuming he is a starter somewhere on Toronto's roster. An off-hand projection has Bonifacio as a 1.5-win player, and over the next two years, that may be worth $15 million while being paid $6.5 million, yielding a surplus of $7.5 million. I would be willing to go down as far as $5 million or $6 million for Bonifacio, depending on your outlook of his play or his role with his new team will be.
Given how drastically Buck fell from the sky during 2012, it is difficult to predict any value from him. Given that he will also likely serve as the Jays' backup catcher behind J.P. Arencibia, it is a good bet that Buck's entire contract is more or less a wash. We could call it a net loss of $6 million in value.
In total, it would appear as though the Marlins shed $12 million to $36 million in negative assets in the books after taking into account the $4 million sent to the Jays. From a pure baseball standpoint, the Marlins should have been able to shed these contracts without acquiring any players in return. But the team did receive some players back, and this entire exercise may be the sole shining light in this darkest of trades.
It seems almost impossible to guess Yunel Escobar at this stage. In his last three seasons, he has hit .266/.335/.358 (.312 wOBA), but that included a nice sandwich season between two uglier campaigns. Combine that with decent, though sometimes baffling, defense and you have a player who could easily be a three-win player next year. Adding Escobar likely improves the infield defense enough that, along with a bounce back of his bat, he could be a 2.5-win player in 2013 and decline as we usually project. The Marlins have two club options at $5 million a season after a $5 million salary in 2013. Assuming each year is picked up, Escobar could be worth $16.5 million in surplus value.
There is some concern, however, that Jays GM Alex Anthopolous likely knows more about Escobar than the Marlins do and may be selling low on his performance. Given his perplexing, up-and-down career, this may be a reasonable assumption, and I would be willing to knock him down to $13 million in surplus over the next three years.
Mathis is a backup catcher, and for the most part, he has been replacement level or worse his entire career. Assume the same level of play from him going forward and you can see his entire two-year, $3 million deal as a net loss of $3 million.
Alvarez is a difficult pitcher to evaluate. Last year he was Chris Volstad-bad, as he put up a 4.85 ERA and 5.18 FIP thanks to a pathetic 9.8 percent strikeout rate. He was never a high-strikeout guy in the minors either, so while he was never this bad, he could not be expected to whiff too many hitters at the major league level. His advantage is that he allows a high level of ground balls, reaching a 57 percent mark last season. Alvarez is still not likely as bad as he was last year, nor as good as he was in 2011 in his last ten starts. A one-win projection for the next six seasons, if he could promise such a mild return, would be worth $20 million in surplus to the Marlins, but I would have a hard time believing the Marlins would evaluate him similarly. Let us say Alvarez has about $5 million in surplus value as a marginal fifth starter at the moment.
The prospect haul is where the Marlins may benefit the most. The haul begins with Jake Marisnick, the best prospect returning from the trade and the second-best prospect in the Blue Jays' system according to John Sickels before 2012. While his bat had not raked as expected (.241/.329/.399 line in two levels, .233/.286/.336 in 247 PA in Double-A) By midseason, Baseball America had him ranked as the 37th-best prospect in baseball, making him worth $23.4 million according to the research done by Victor Wang (featured in this Beyond the Box Score article). The inclusion of Marisnick alone should be enough for the Marlins to be happy with the return.
The remaining prospects are of weaker caliber, but it is likely Justin Nicolino may be ranked highly after his stellar Low-A season (2.46 ERA, 2.54 FIP in 124 1/3 innings). Hechevarria is an all-glove expert who likely will not develop with the bat, while DeSclafani had a good year in his first outing in Low-A (3.44 ERA, 2.70 FIP in 123 innings). The remaining prospects could bring in $17.6 million in additional surplus value.
In total this trade brought the Marlins assets valued at $55 million. That is an insanely large return in return for shedding multiple negative contracts, even if the contracts come attached to good players. So while the visceral response from the trade was one of disgust, from a pure baseball standpoint, this is a landfall for the Fish that will serve to restock their minor league system that had been ravaged by poor drafts in the late 2000's. It also returns the Marlins at least one piece who could be a contributor in the immediate future. While only one name on this list was highly-ranked and none of these players are guarantees, the Marlins acquired a good amount of quantity rather than opting for pure quality, and they received plenty of decent players in return.
The problem is that this trade is not just something that will affect the Marlins on the field. The results of this deal will almost surely affect the team off the field as well, and those effects are the reason why, despite the obvious advantage in trade value, this remains a bad trade for the Marlins. It is not just the strict baseball effect of this deal that is important, but rather its effect on the perception of the Marlins organization by fans, prospective free agents, and other parties that may ultimately make this deal a negative for the Fish.