The Miami Marlins made some acquisitions over the weekend, most notably the trade of Nathan Eovaldi to the New York Yankees in return for Martin Prado. The Fish included Garrett Jones and starting pitching prospect Domingo German in the deal as well, and it seems odd initially to see the two players involved. Eovaldi, while off a down season, was probably still more valuable than Prado, even though acquiring Prado guaranteed wins in 2015. Why include a prospect as well as a big-leaguer in a deal that only further netted you David Phelps?
The reasoning for the Marlins is probably clear: trading German was the only way to trade Jones and his salary as well.
Valuing prospects is always a difficult task, especially when they are far away from the majors. Prior to this season, German was not very highly heralded, having spent much of his time hanging out in Rookie Ball and playing very little. Prior to this season, he had not had full-season ball experience. But his first full year in Low-A Greensboro was a massive success, as he threw 123 1/3 innings and put up a 2.46 ERA and 3.26 FIP. He struck out 22.4 percent of batters faced while walking just 5.0 percent of them, showing that he could pound the strike zone in full-season ball.
But heading into this year, he wasn't much more than a C-grade prospect, essentially an unknown. After one good year, he may have been bounced up to a B-grade, but it is doubtful that he would have earned a top-100 prospect status over guys who are at higher minor league levels and have performed similarly well. For example, in 2012, Adam Conley was 22 years old, only a little older than German during 2014, and posted a similarly dominant 2.78 ERA and 3.07 FIP with an even more impressive 27.9 percent strikeout rate in 14 starts before being promoted to High-A Jupiter. Conley wasn't considered close to a top-100 prospect until his strong run Double-A in 2013.
German got good exposure from representing the Marlins in the Futures Game, but his status as a prospect is still a question. He has only pitched in one full-season campaign, and similar pitchers are still not highly rated nationally. This makes his situation different than a guy like Andrew Heaney, who has proven himself at multiple levels and is close to a finished product. German has great tools, but as Nathaniel Stoltz of FanGraphs points out, he also has a potential future in relief rather than as a starter given the gulf between his fastball and his other pitches.
All of this is to say that we cannot overestimate German's value. In Kevin Creagh of Pirates Prospects' update on prospect valuation methods from 2012, he pointed out that pitching prospects in the peripheries of the top-100 of lists like Baseball America were worth around $7 million to $8 million in terms of trade or surplus value. Knowing that German would not be a top-100 prospect this season, we can be reasonably sure that he would be worth less than that in the trade market. It is not unreasonable to think he would be worth around $5 million in trade value.
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That happens to be the value of Garrett Jones's overpaid second half of his contract. Jones is being paid $5 million in 2015 as part of a misguided two-year, $7.5 million deal with the Fish. After a year of replacement-level play, the Marlins decided they wanted an upgrade at first and found one in Michael Morse. But to get rid of Jones's contract, the team had to pay up trade value, because Jones himself has none. At this point, he is a platoon lefty, and not a good one at that, making him a near-replacement level player. The Marlins had to give up German and his value to make up for Jones's salary relative to his pay.
This is the cost Miami incurred to dump Jones's salary. The Fish are balancing a precarious budget in trying to stay around $70 million while taking on a good number of salary pieces. Part of that is buoyed by salary assistance that the Dodgers and Yankees sent over in trades, but part of it is the Fish being able to get rid of Jones's salary for assets. A less cash-strapped (whether truthfully or at least by owner mandate) team may have kept German and eaten Jones's sunk-cost salary in 2015, but the Marlins are not that team yet (or ever). That $5 million means something to Jeffrey Loria and company, hence why they had to deal a young, far-from-the-majors prospect just to be rid of it.