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Marlins' Options in the Starting Pitcher Trade Market

Is Carlos Zambrano on a cheap trade the best option for the Marlins to acquire a fifth starter to insert into the rotation?  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Is Carlos Zambrano on a cheap trade the best option for the Marlins to acquire a fifth starter to insert into the rotation? (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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It seems Marlins baseball operations head Larry Beinfest is still interested in acquiring another pitcher, whether it be by free agency or trade. The Marlins still want another starter to add to this current team of four solid starting pitchers.

"It’s very difficult to buy pitching, to trade for pitching, but we’re on it," Beinfest said. "Ideally, we would love to add another top-of-the-rotation starter. Whether that’s practical, that remains to be seen."

Beinfest's question of whether it is or is not practical is actually a very good one. As a team traditionally built via prospects, the Marlins have been known as a team rich with young players whom, were the team so inclined, could be traded for major pieces in the future. However, the status of the Marlins' minor league system has been shot by promotion over the last two seasons, and recent discussions of the team's system by experts such as John Sickels of Minor League Ball or the guys at Bullpen Banter confirm this distinct lack of depth.

This leaves the Marlins in a quite a predicament: how can they acquire top-notch starting pitching with no minor league depth and no willingness to trade starting position players? While it is understandable that the Fish would be interested in pitching depth, the Marlins simply lack the depth to make the acquisition via trade, and there are options still available in the free agent market.

The Names of Interest

The Marlins are looking to add another "top-of-the-rotation starter" in the words of Beinfest, but the names that are available via trade are a mixed bag.

Pitchers who have been the subject of trade rumors throughout baseball this winter include Oakland’s Gio Gonzalez, the CubsMatt Garza and Carlos Zambrano, Tampa’s James Shields, Houston’s Wandy Rodriguez and White Sox left-hander John Danks.

Here are the stats since 2009 for the players listed above.

Player IP K% BB% ERA FIP Avg WAR
Gio Gonzalez 503 1/3 22.0 11.0 3.68 3.86 7.4
Matt Garza 605 2/3 21.0 8.0 3.73 3.86 8.2
Carlos Zambrano 444 2/3 19.1 10.5 3.99 3.96 6.3
James Shields 672 1/3 20.6 6.0 3.96 3.86 8.1
Wandy Rodriguez 591 2/3 21.7 8.1 3.36 3.73 9.3
John Danks 583 2/3 18.2 7.7 3.92 4.04 9.8

This pool of pitchers is actually surprisingly similar over the course of the last three seasons. The worst among them according to the average of three Wins Above Replacement metrics was Zambrano, who is clearly at the bottom of the pack but not far removed from a decent 2010 season. The best of the pitchers was the consistent John Danks, who is under one more season of team control and has weathered the difficulties of U.S. Cellular Field. In between are the remaining pitchers, all on different contracts and at different ages in their career.

Based on their remaining team-controlled seasons and promise of future performance, we can generally group these six pitchers into three categories:

Favorable: Gonzalez (youngest starter and team-controlled for four arbitration seasons), Shields (under team control for three more affordable seasons)

Rentals: Danks (one more affordable, team-control season), Garza (two more less affordable, team-control seasons)

More Expensive Option: Rodriguez (if traded, he would be under control for three seasons at Mark Buehrle-like prices)

Last Resort: Zambrano (one expensive team-control season remaining that would only become an option if the Cubs pay for the majority of those years)

Who Can the Marlins Acquire?

WIth each pitcher at similar skill levels, the Marlins only really have to determine what they can afford to give up to acquire these players. Keep in mind that the Fish appear set with their starting position players and are not interested in trading parts of their starting eight, in part because the team has as much of an issue with position player depth as they do with pitching depth.

Favorables: In the case of either Gonzalez or Shields, the Marlins would have to surrender a starting position player. Since the team appears adamant about not resolving the Gaby Sanchez - Logan Morrison first base logjam dilemma, instead opting for the same alignment the club played last season once again, the team will be unable to acquire either of these players. It was said that the Oakland Athletics really did ask for Mike Stanton in return for Gonzalez, and if that is the case, the Marlins would be wise to avoid dealing with Oakland when it comes to the young lefty hurler and Miami native.

Rentals: The Cubs have said that they are looking for a "Zack Greinke" return for Garza, but Theo Epstein and company would be silly to expect such a great return for a pitcher with almost no prior history of great success. Greinke was coming off of a Cy Young season and a very solid five-win 2010 campaign before he was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers; Garza's 2011 season was the first of its kind for his career, and it was similar to Greinke's 2010 regression. Nevertheless, with the Cubs looking for pitching prospects, the Marlins appear to be out of the game. The Fish have a plethora of pitching prospects in lefties Brad Hand, Chad James, and Rob Rasmussen, but none of them come without major questions and the Cubs' desire to add young players goes against the Marlins' availabilities.

There is a similar situation with Danks. He is a decent pitcher with only one season left under team control, but it sounds like the White Sox are using him as part of the process to rebuild the team's youth. The team has already supposedly asked for two of the New York Yankees' Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos, and Dellin Betances. The Marlins have few players who can compare to those pedigrees, so you can suspect the Fish would have no chance to approach a trade.

More Expensive Option: The Marlins apparently had some interest in Rodriguez before, but this was quite some time ago and before the Marlins acquired Buehrle. Rodriguez would be very similar to Buehrle in slow-throwing lefty status, so his contract over the next three seasons (with the 2014 third year option becoming a player option in case of a trade) would be palatable.

The question is whether the Marlins should give up anything to acquire Rodriguez's fair contract; if he is a projected three-win pitcher in 2012, then he may be worth just around $36 million in free agent value over the next two seasons, depending on how he ages. If the Marlins have to trade significant assets to acquire Rodriguez, they may be paying in talent for the right to pay Rodriguez fair-market value. The Fish do not have much in terms of trade bait, but third base prospect Matt Dominguez may be enough of a centerpiece to entice a deal from the Astros, and if the Astros choose to eat some of the money remaining in Rodriguez's contract, the Fish should be more than interested.

Last Resort: Zambrano would only be an option if the Cubs rightfully ate almost all of his remaining $18 million in 2012. Nevertheless, the team could do worse than Zambrano on a one-year flyer as a fifth starter, especially if the club did not have to trade much in the way of assets. The Cubs may be willing to take very little in return for the Marlins releasing them from their headache, and surely the Fish would be willing to pay at least a third of Zambrano's salary in return for menial minor league parts that would likely be worse than the ones they traded to acquire manager Ozzie Guillen.

If the Marlins are still interested in making trades for starters, their best bet appears to be to go after the last two options. The first four players, are the most appealing but also the most expensive, and the sheer lack of depth in terms of options for the Marlins leaves them unlikely to bring up a package appealing to pick up a front-line starter. If the Fish are willing to pay more money, they can still trade for Rodriguez, but one wonders whether simply signing a starter on the market like Edwin Jackson would not be a better idea. Zambrano may sound like an awful last resort given his terrible 2011, but he is still likely a talented-enough pitcher to manage the fifth spot for the Marlins on a low-cost pickup.