Two years ago, the Miami Marlins had major question marks at the catcher position. J.T. Realmuto had come off a second straight poor season at the plate and failed a transition to Double-A. The team was not in a position to compete necessarily, but it did not have any in-house catching options beyond Jeff Mathis, and even the Marlins' internal love for gritty veterans like Mathis did not prevent them from searching for a catcher. They found one in free agent Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who signed a very reasonable three-year, $21 million deal. At that kind of money, the Marlins were paying for about one win a season from Salty.
Last year, the Marlins were in need of a first baseman. They had no clear options in the minors, as the then-26 year-old Justin Bour was always a questionable bet at first base. The team opted to sign another former World Series championship member, as the team went with Michael Morse on a two-year, $16 million deal.
Neither deal was that onerous at the the time, though the Morse contract was more questionable at onset. But by the middle of the 2015 season, the Marlins had given up on both of them.
The Marlins certainly did not give Salty much time to recover in 2015. The veteran catcher certainly started slow, with only two hits (one homer) in his first 33 plate appearances this past season. Of course, the Marlins were disappointed with Saltalamacchia before that, having witnessed him hit .220/.320/.362 (.304 wOBA) last season. The line was not the most impressive for the Fish, and the Marlins expect a lot of even their most minor of free agent signings. The Fish at some point figured they could get better production from Realmuto and not have to pay for Saltalamacchia's $15 million in remaining salary.
The team sought out the trade market, but this was a classic example of trying to sell low instead of waiting out a player's value, something the Marlins do at an alarming rate. The team could not find a taker, and as Saltalamacchia returned from the paternity list after the birth of his family's newest addition, the Fish presented him with his walking papers. The move was an odd one, to say the least; the Marlins were down Mathis at the time and needed up a backup catcher, yet they released Salty with minimal warning despite the fact that he could have served in that role temporarily. By all accounts, Saltalamacchia was not griping about ceding playing time to Realmuto, though no one can say for sure what happened in the clubhouse.
Later on, Saltalamacchia described the situation in which the Marlins informed him of his release:
"It was weird," Saltalmacchia said. "They called me as I was driving home from the hospital with the baby. The baby was screaming, so we had to pull over to finish the conversation."
"They wanted to put me on the DL and I was, like, no, I’m fine," Saltalamacchia said. "And they were just like, well, we think you need to work on your swing, have some time with your family. And I was, like, no, I’m not going to go on the DL."
Odd circumstances all around. Saltalamacchia also described wishing he had had more opportunity in 2015 to work beyond his slump.
"If I would have gotten to play all three years and [performed badly], then, yeah, it would have been frustrating," he said. "I didn’t live up to it. But I didn’t get that opportunity. It’s more like I really didn’t have a chance."
To his credit, that really did turn out to be the case, because when Saltalamacchia signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, he was rejuvenated. He hit .251/.332/.474 (.348 wOBA), numbers that matched up with his final season in Boston, and smacked eight homers in just 193 plate appearances. Most sources had him worth close to one Win Above Replacement (WAR) in Arizona. And he did it all under the Marlins' financial support; because he was released under contract, the Diamondbacks only assumed the prorated league minimum for Salty's services, while the Marlins were footed the rest of his $15 million bill over this year and next season.
The Marlins essentially paid Saltalamacchia to go away too early and failed to reap the rewards.
Morse's case was far more clear-cut in the sense that he was more obviously worse this season than Saltalamacchia. Still, the Marlins afforded him only 174 plate appearances to prove his mettle, and he failed to impress the team. With Morse injured, Bour took over and hit reasonably better, so the Fish extended that into a starting gig. Morse was tasked early on to help fill the outfield void in the wake of the Marcell Ozuna demotion, but after a brief period of time spent bungling his outfield defense, the Marlins eventually sent him packing with Mat Latos to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Marlins, of course, took a different approach with Morse. Rather than pay him to go away, the Marlins paid somebody else assets to divulge themselves of their investment. The Fish traded a modest deadline chip in Latos along with yet another competitive balance draft pick in order to get rid of Morse. They did get talent in return, but much of that talent is questionable to begin with and none of it is beyond C-level in grade. The deal was primarily used as an outlet to trade Morse's salary away.
I'm not sure which method was worse. Saltalamacchia's release seemed like a waste with the Marlins still planning on paying him; the team could have established a time share with Salty taking a share of the right-handed pitchers and Reamuto handling the rest, including all lefties. Alas, the Fish were likely concerned about the threat of clubhouse problems. In Morse's case, however, the Marlins took from their potential future and gave up assets rather than pay Morse his salary and potentially receive a better return. Neither was a good idea, even if the team was disappointed in those players. Both ended up being failed parts of the 2015 campaign.