Just a few days ago, in the far away land of NFL football, the New York Jets traded franchise cornerback Darrelle Revis to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a 2013 first-round pick and a third-rounder next year (if you're a fan of the Jets or Bucs and are looking for coverage, look no further than SB Nation's Gang Green Nation and Bucs Nation, respectively).
This post is not about Darrelle Revis, but what Darrelle Revis represents. He is a superstar, a franchise player being dealt near his prime, and Grantland's Bill Barnwell knows that and mentioned how trading Revis was an impossible venture.
"Did they get a fair price for Rickey Henderson? It's kind of like if you're an art collector and you have the Mona Lisa, what's a fair price for it? The idea in building a championship team is to acquire players like Rickey Henderson. It's a sad day when you have to give one away."
Bill James wrote that about the Oakland A's after they traded Henderson to the Yankees before the 1985 season. As the Jets and Buccaneers negotiated terms for a possible Darrelle Revis deal for weeks (almost entirely through leaks from "unnamed sources" in New York newspapers), I kept coming back to that paragraph from James. I don't know whether this trade will end up being what any of the parties involved hope it will be. I just know that it's depressing to have something as wonderful as Darrelle Revis and then give it away for some unknown quantity. It's just too difficult to get another Darrelle Revis.
The Bill James quote is an extremely interesting one, because it gets to the heart of a matter very near and dear to the Miami Marlins. James's quote essentially says, as Barnwell describes, that teams run too much risk trading a superstar for lottery tickets like draft picks or, in the case of baseball, prospects. While prospects are a bit better known than future draft picks, they still remain a high uncertainty compared to the sure-fire certainty of a superstar.
In 2007, the Marlins dealt a player entering his prime, a career .313/.388/.542 hitter at the time. Miguel Cabrera's trade to the Detroit Tigers ended up setting back the Marlins a number of years, as the return failed to yield anything in the end. In 2013 or 2014, the Marlins will end up trading Giancarlo Stanton, most likely for a return involving prospects and young, relatively unproven players. Many of these prospects will have big names in the prospect business; names like Jurickson Profar, Mike Olt, Oscar Taveras, and Shelby Miller have been discussed. But just like in the Cabrera deal, big names can bust, and the Marlins could make what seems like a reasonable trade for Stanton and still come out looking bad because their lottery tickets failed to pay off.
And there lies the premise that James brings up, that trading a superstar will never yield proper value. Thus, your priority is not to trade a player like Stanton, but rather to keep him as a member of your core and surround him with talent. If this were any other franchise in baseball, it would be an obvious decision. Even the worst franchises or the most small-market of teams still tend to retain their superstars through at least their team control years. Andrew McCutchen will be with the Pittsburgh Pirates for three additional free agent seasons. Troy Tulowitzki signed with the Colorado Rockies for life. Felix Hernandez has been a part of losing baseball with the Seattle Mariners for all of his career, and he just signed one of the most lucrative long-term extensions in pitching history.
But the Marlins are not your average bad team or small-market team. They have a brand new stadium, an owner who keeps driving fans away, and fans who cannot and will not fill the seats. The Marlins are supposedly losing money enough that, despite a new stadium, they needed to once again cut costs and live off revenue sharing. This is a team that likely cannot sign Giancarlo Stanton to a lucrative multi-year deal, and the reason for that is more than just affordability. The Marlins have damaged enough of their reputation that they likely cannot entice Stanton to sign an extension. The problem is not only in buying power, but in credibility. At this point, losing teams like the Pirates and Mariners have more of both than the Marlins.
So if the axiom that trading superstars is never a winning proposition is true, then the Marlins may be in for a rough few seasons. They will certainly have to trade their current superstar, and if the team does not work quickly to secure Jose Fernandez and Christian Yelich, they too will be leaving the franchise four or five years down the line. If trading a franchise player never pans out, the Marlins can never build a talented roster, because so much of their talent will depend on the results of a trade like this. We go back, then, to the primitive question: if the Marlins cannot retain their own developed stars (instead replacing them with lottery tickets less certain to be stars), or purchase others from free agency, then how can the team win games?
Sometime in the next two seasons, Stanton is going to hold the future of this franchise in his hands, and the odds are against the Marlins finding his replacement so easily. And so it goes for the Fish, who are eternally their Rickey Hendersons away and never keeping a center of the franchise.