Stop me if you have heard this story before. The Miami Marlins, back when they were known as the Florida Marlins, had a superstar slugger with four years of team control remaining. The team traded a number of major league assets prior to the first of those four seasons, and the resulting backlash led to the slugger being disgruntled. A few years later, led by a monster first year of arbitration, the Marlins were forced, supposedly by economics, to trade the slugger for a major haul of top prospects.
Back then, that slugger's name was Miguel Cabrera, and the eventual result was what turned out to be one of the more lopsided trades in team and league history (though it was a fair trade at the time, and it should be judged that way). This time around, the Marlins appear to be on their way to an eerily similar situation with star slugger Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton has four seasons remaining of team control, and with the team's recent trades and Stanton's unhappy reaction, it seems highly unlikely that the team can sign him to a long-term deal.
As of right now, those situations look very similar, with both players heading into years in which the Marlins are expected to fail. What could happen in the future to swing this situation one way or another? Can the Marlins somehow convince Stanton to stay around, or is his departure an inevitability given the current state? Let us examine the Cabrera situation of the past to see if the future of Stanton's status will follow suit.
The 2006 Team
The one thing that swung the Marlins' way with regards to convincing Cabrera to stay with the team was that the 2006 Marlins actually played well. Much to the delight of many fans, myself included, the 2006 Marlins succeeded in a way no one could have expected. They were the first team to come from 20 games under .500 and play to an even record at some point in the same year. They ended the year a surprising 78-84, and things had to be looking up for the Marlins in 2007.
If the Marlins had the resources to pull off an extension for Cabrera, the 2006 season was the godsend year that they needed to help convince him. That season showed Cabrera that this Marlins core could compete and that he was not alone in attempting to carry a roster to victory. The Marlins boasted Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, Josh Johnson, and a myriad of other relative success stories that year, as almost every prospect bounced the right way for the team. Were it so inclined, the front office could convince Cabrera that this is the sort of crew that could support him on the way to many years of success in south Florida.
Can the 2013 Marlins do the same thing? Anything is possible, I suppose, but it would seem as though the Marlins of this season are in a far weaker position to pull off the surprising play the 2006 team did. While the farm system overall was significantly bolstered and could compete with the system from years ago, it almost certainly lacks the top end current talent to do it now. Of the prospects acquired that will litter the starting lineup this season, either Jacob Turner or Nathan Eovaldi would likely rank highest, and none would be considered a high-level prospect heading into this season. Even with all of his question marks, Hanley Ramirez was never ranked lower than 39th among prospects, and he was ranked 30th coming into the 2006 season. The Marlins brought up five top-100 prospects that year, while the Fish this season likely would bring one or two up at most.
This means that the support core surrounding Stanton is likely to be worse than the one around Cabrera. As a result, the 2013 Marlins are much more likely to falter than the 2006 Marlins were, though not much was expected of either team. This is important because there is not much time to impress Stanton into potentially signing with the Marlins, and any wasted season is going to be a large push towards leaving the organization. The 2006 season likely eased Cabrera's thoughts about leaving a little, even if the financial situation likely did not.
We understand that Stanton and Cabrera are major stars heading into arbitration soon. But are they comparable? Cabrera made $7.4 million in his first season of arbitration following a .339/.430/.568 (.415 wOBA) season. Bill James has his 2013 projections out already, and he predicts Stanton will hit .284/.365/.605 (.403 wOBA) in 2013, an almost identical line to his 2012 mark. Given the fact that arbitration prices are largely determined by traditional statistics, Stanton's home runs and RBI are likely to convince any board that he is a legitimate star who should earn top salary in his first year.
What have other superstars earned in their first arbitration season? Here's a sample of guys who entered as elite sluggers and what they earned in those first years:
Cabrera: $7.4 million
Ryan Howard: $10 million
Prince Fielder: $7 million (signed two-year extension with $6.5 million base and $0.5 million from a $1 million signing bonus)
Mark Teixeira: $6.4 million (signed two-year extension)
Matt Holliday: $4.4 million
Joey Votto: $8 million (signed three-year extension with $5.5 million base and $2.5 million of his signing bonus in first year)
Only Holliday, the least paid player listed, is an outfielder among these sluggers, but if anything, that would benefit Stanton's case, as he played a more difficult position than all but two of these guys heading into his first arbitration season. As a group, these were some of the best young sluggers in the game, and they averaged $7.2 million in the first go-around in arbitration. If Stanton is one of the best hitters in baseball in 2013, you can expect a similar figure for him in 2014.
If the Marlins do not sign a long-term extension, you can expect Stanton's salaries to climb very quickly, just as the Marlins feared Cabrera's salaries would in the final two arbitration years. If the team is still pinching pennies by that time, you can expect the Marlins to be less inclined to pay $11 million for one player who will not be with the team in two years, especially if the club is not competitive in 2014 like the Marlins of 2007. Cabrera earned $11.3 million in his would-be second year of arbitration as a part of his eight-year extension. The remaining players earned similar numbers, and the overall average was $11 million for the second year and $15.6 million for the final arbitration season.
The 2007 Team
So we have established that the market in terms of price for Stanton seems very similar to that of Cabrera; both players appear to be at the same level of earning power through arbitration. Given that the 2006 team was a success, the Marlins' current 2013 team looks meager in comparison and unlikely to help convince Stanton to stay. The only thing that can then convince the Marlins to keep Stanton is if the 2014 team is competitive. In 2007, the Marlins flailed to a 71-91 finish and owner Jeffrey Loria must have thought that if the Fish could finish last in the division with Cabrera, they could certainly do it without him and his $11 million salary. Being the penny-pinchers they were, they traded him away.
Of course, the 2014 team may also be quite bad, but the reason why at least this club has a chance to be a positive factor is that the best prospects on the team are expected to join the roster in that year. Jose Fernandez and Christian Yelich, the two best prospects since Stanton, are slated for a late 2013 audition barring a superstar breakout, and 2014 should be their first full season on the job. If they are as good as advertised, the Marlins may have a semblance of a core in Yelich, Fernandez, and even a disgruntled Stanton. If that core, supported by the bolstered farm system products, can produce a surprise competitive team like the 2006 Marlins, the team may think twice about sending Stanton away and see if they can ride his final two years on the roster to contention.
This may be the only route remaining for the Marlins to retain Stanton beyond 2014, and it is a gamble beyond Yelich and Fernandez. The Marlins picked up a lot of quality, and a few of those players such as Justin Nicolino and Andrew Heaney appear to have high floors as prospects, but the team is still risking Stanton's future on this team on the rest of this farm system shaping up the major league roster in a hurry. If the team can do that, the Marlins may be forced to keep Stanton, and this does not guarantee any more than two more seasons with him. As of right now, it seems almost impossible to convince Stanton to sign a deal that keeps him here longer than he needs to be.