Yesterday night, the Miami Marlins came away with a highly controversial trade that sent Dee Gordon to Miami along with Dan Haren for a bevy of players and money. The Los Angeles Dodgers opened up their hefty coffers and used the free money to impress Miami and entice more talent out of them, and it turned out that talent included top prospect Andrew Heaney.
The trade has a number of moving parts, and they are all intriguing. Let's take a look.
For the Marlins
This is a bet that Dee Gordon can retain something close to the value he had last season. Last year, he was an All-Star who hit .292/.344/.398 (.329 wOBA) in the first half last season and played competent defense at second base. The Marlins are betting that player can reasonably stick around for the remaining four years of team control that the Fish are now gaining.
Can he? Gordon has speed as his primary tool, but he does do some other things reasonably well. He made contact on a lot of pitches last season, at a rate of 87 percent. That ranked 22nd in baseball among qualified Major Leaguers last season. With his speed, one would expect him to put the ball in play and be able to run out some extra hits, especially with his ability to make contact. For his career, he has hit .326 on balls in play, which is not an unreasonable expectation going forward. Of course, that speed tool provides value on the bases as well, as Gordon racked up nearly 10 runs last year on the bases. For his career, he has averaged almost eight runs above average per 600 plate appearances with baserunning alone.
The Marlins value all of those things, especially the baserunning they so dearly miss from the old 2003 World Series days. But Gordon is not without question marks. Prior to last season, he had hit .256/.301/.312, so this is essentially the Marlins buying high on an otherwise mediocre-appearing player. The Fish are picking him up at his highest value, even as he struggled in the second half by batting .284/.300/.348 (.287 wOBA). Gordon struggles with plate discipline, as he swings too often outside the zone (35 percent for his career) and too little in-zone (56 percent). This probably contributes to why his strikeout rate is so high (16.5 percent career) despite good contact numbers. And Gordon has no home run pop, with a huge ground ball rate and only four career bombs to his name.
In fact, Dee Gordon may very well be a younger, perhaps slightly better Emilio Bonifacio. Boni similarly struggled with strikeouts, contact, and worked hard to improve his middling walk rates. He had no power, but used tremendous speed to eke out one strong season at the plate. Gordon is a better runner, and there's a chance he maintains his phenomenal baserunning numbers, but Miami is getting a Juan Pierre / Bonifacio-type player in this trade.
There is a question as to whether this is an upgrade over the current roster, but that question feels overblown. Gordon's baserunning value and average defense at second base should help him at least approach league average value overall. The Marlins' only interior candidate who would likely be able to claim something similar is Derek Dietrich, and after parts of two seasons, I think there is legitimate concern about his defense sinking his offensive contributions. Acquiring four years of team control of Gordon is not a bad idea, and it makes Miami better today.
Dan Haren is a confusing part of this deal. His $10 million figure is fully paid for, but he has had home run issues since 2012 and the small declines in strikeout rate and upticks in walk rate have degraded his effectiveness. He is comfortably a one-plus win pitcher with innings-eating capabilities, but there is no guarantee that he is any better than Tom Koehler, whom he would be replacing if he remained in the rotation after Jose Fernandez returned.
The Steep Cost
Unfortunately for the Marlins, these upgrades were not without cost. Andrew Heaney was the team's top starting pitching prospect and a low-ceiling / low-floor player ever since he was drafted. Last season, in stints in Double- and Triple-A, he posted a combined 3.28 ERA and 3.33 FIP in 137 1/3 innings. For a 23-year-old guy drafted in 2012, and a lefty to boot, that was impressive. The Marlins have been clamoring for a lefty starter for years, and they had one pretty much ready for an extended Major League look.
Except the Marlins saw 24 bad innings out of Heaney and seemingly lost confidence in him. All offseason, there were trade rumors swirling around him, especially in the wake of Justin Nicolino's strong Double-A year that hid ugly strikeout numbers. So the Fish bought high on Gordon by selling low on Heaney, offering him up impatiently much like they did with Colin Moran late last season. Here's what John Sickels of Minor League Ball had to say after Heaney's 2014 season:
1) Andrew Heaney, LHP, Grade A-: Borderline B+. Age 23, posted 3.28 ERA with 143/36 K/BB in 137 innings between Double-A Jacksonville and Triple-A New Orleans, 120 hits. 5.33 ERA in 25 major league innings with 17/6 K/BB. One of the very top LHP prospects in all of baseball.
There were still questions about Heaney, especially with regards to his seeming lack of control in the majors. But was that worth tossing him aside so quickly after such a small sample? You don't trade one of the best left-handed pitching prospects in baseball in such an off-hand fashion.
And the Marlins also gave up more pieces. They never gave Enrique Hernandez, who was touted as an important part of the Jarred Cosart deal, a fair shot at second base on a regular basis. They then treated him as a throw-in in this deal. They traded an effective, if not middling reliever in Chris Hatcher who at least got strikeouts last season. And they threw in an underrated hitter in prospect Austin Barnes, who could play two positions where the Marlins may need help in the future.
If you think Gordon is a league-average player for the next four seasons, then acquiring him as a long-term solution is by no means a bad idea. But even if he is, we know that Gordon's upside is limited due to his lack of power and non-elite defense. Tossing out your top prospect because of a few lousy innings is also acceptable, but not for a guy who has a low ceiling and could easily bottom out after his only good year in the majors.
The Marlins simply took on too much risk here. They sent away a guy who will not be an ace but will almost certainly at least fill the back of a rotation for years to come, and they acquired a guy who could not get on base just two seasons ago and derives way too much value from one tool. Not only that, but they also sent three other somewhat interesting players. In return, the Fish mostly received financial benefit for those guys, as the team picked up the salaries of Gordon and Haren, who may retire and only become money to Miami.
Acquiring Gordon was a correct thing to do for this franchise at this point, but it was not correct at this cost.