At first sight, the rumors of a potential trade of Miami Marlins starter Jose Fernandez seem absurd. The Marlins love Fernandez, who is a Cuban-born but locally-raised son of Florida (he went to high school in Tampa), and Fernandez has shown a great deal of love for the city as well. It seems very strange that the Marlins would even entertain trade offers. Indeed, according to president of baseball operations Michael Hill, Fernandez is "not available" for trade.
Michael Hill on Jose Fernandez: "He's not available." #marlins— clarkspencer (@clarkspencer) December 8, 2015
Mike Hill on Jose: "He's not available. We haven't made him available. But, it doesn't stop the phone calls from happening." #Marlins— Joe Frisaro (@JoeFrisaro) December 8, 2015
Still, where there is smoke, there has to be some semblance of fire. The heat on a potential Marlins trade of Fernandez has been burning up since yesterday, when apparently the Fish fielded some calls from at least three different teams. Now, Buster Olney of ESPN is reporting that the odds of a deal might be about 40 percent according to one rival executive, and that another mystery team is involved in talks according to Jayson Stark of ESPN. Behind the scenes, there is probably at least some real talk, even if an eventual trade is still unlikely to occur.
However, there is also an argument for a deal to happen. It's an argument Marlins fans are all too tired of hearing, but it is still a real one.
The Marlins are not going to sign Fernandez for the long haul. This seems like an unfortunate reality, one that was complicated by his service time problems and the Tommy John surgery that derailed his last year and a half. Had the Marlins not stupidly promoted Fernandez to a starting role right at the beginning of 2013, they may have had a shot at another team-controlled year with Fernandez and more time to mend their relationship before an eventual decision had to be made. That extra season, even if it included a salary similar to the one he is expected to earn this year (around $2.2 million), would have still been worth the time. The Marlins would have another year of information and close relationship with Fernandez, and that might have helped stem the tide of antipathy between the two sides, with agent Scott Boras helping affect Fernandez's decision-making process.
Tommy John surgery made any small possibility of a contract extension extremely unlikely. Boras hardly ever agrees to pre-arbitration or arbitration extensions that buy out free agent years on the cheap, but Fernandez might have enjoyed Miami so much that he could push for a deal. However, the injury really hurt his chances of earning what he probably deserves; Fernandez likely would have been on a Clayton Kershaw / Tim Lincecum type of track for elite starting pitchers heading into arbitration had he not gotten injured and pitched his 2014 and 2015 seasons like he did in 2013. Instead, he missed a year and a half and now has significant question marks for injury, thus earning him a tiny salary compared to those guys.
These two factors have depressed Fernandez's salary ceiling during arbitration. This could all change after 2016, but right now, there is little incentive for Fernandez to hook up with the Marlins for a five-year deal with his current salary track. Boras certainly would not agree to any arrangement that starts with $2 million on the front end, knowing that his client could have a full, healthy season that bumps his salary a lot faster than a contract might provide. The Marlins, on the other hand, have no incentive to pay Fernandez like he is a fully healthy player, because he may not be.
This means that Miami would have to wait out until free agency or close to it in order to get a deal to work. Then the issue becomes that the Marlins have never paid a pitcher a huge lump sum of money and have previously said that they would refuse to do such a thing for anyone but the "right" player. David Samson has mentioned that $15 million a season, to the Marlins, would be an exorbitant amount, and the team would probably have to fork up more for a full free agent deal with a healthy, star-level Fernandez. One look at the type of contracts pitchers are earning this year shows you that the market for wins is growing faster than anything the Marlins are wiling to shell out.
Why Trade Now?
A trade now makes sense because it gets Fernandez early enough in his service time that it provides an acquiring team a lot of value. Halfway into the 2015 season and about two starts into Fernandez's return, FanGraphs rated Fernandez as the 23rd most valuable trade asset in baseball, just ahead of guys like Matt Harvey and Christian Yelich and just behind Noah Syndergaard and Giancarlo Stanton. Even with all of injury problems, Fernandez is an extremely valuable player. The Marlins should expect a fantastic return of prospects for Fernandez.
Waiting a year may build value in terms of proving Fernandez's skill and health, but it may come with more health risks and, more importantly, it would increase his odds of a high salary. Teams obviously would rather get three potential full years of Fernandez rather than two, and it is likely that most clubs who would consider trading for him are betting on him to be healthy going forward rather than being a potential health risk and may be willing to give up the most return possible.
Perhaps most importantly, the Marlins need developmental talent, and they need it fast. Getting a cost-controlled Major Leaguer at any variety of positions plus filling up the minors with good prospects lets the Fish establish a plan for the next few years and develop the talent they receive. It would be a huge boon to a roster that may not be ready to compete for at least another season.
The Flip Side
Of course, there are always arguments against this sort of controversial potential move, and tomorrow morning, we'll discuss the opposite argument against trading a central star piece like Fernandez.