You had to figure the Miami Marlins, who were poised to take on a seller's role this trade deadline, were going to deal one of their late-inning relief arms. You had to figure that Steve Cishek would be the best candidate to be dealt. After all, Cishek is under team control for two more seasons, but they figure to be expensive years after his extensive good work as a closer in years past. He earned $6.65 million in salary in 2015, so that scale was going to bump up pretty high, even after a down year. Presuming some bounce back, Cishek figured to make probably $8 million next year and perhaps $10 million the following season.
Still, it is pretty surprising that the Marlins, after seeing some improvement from their righty former closer, still could not get more value out of a trade for a former elite arm. The Fish dealt Cishek to the St. Louis Cardinals for Double-A reliever Kyle Barraclough, signaling the end of the C-Shock era in Miami.
The Cishek of 2015 probably was not as good as the Cishek of 2011 to 2014. A number of things have broken differently for him, from a decrease in velocity to a continuing shifting of his pitch balance. Last season, Cishek found great success throwing more sliders than ever before and completely abandoning the middling changeup he used to throw. This year, he started the season throwing sliders at continued high rates, but was struggling with a suddenly mediocre (and not grounder-inducing) sinker. He was shellacked over several innings to start the year and earned a two-week demotion to Double-A.
However, he came back with a few more fastballs, a better velocity, and some improvement. His fastball is up to 92 mph, and he is throwing more of them, up to 58 percent of his pitches as compared to the initial 50 percent rate he had. That has earned him more ground balls than he was getting to start the year. It also led to a better strikeout rate and fewer walks in his 12 1/3 innings since returning from the minors.
Just as importantly, however, was that Cishek was allowing a .308 batting average on balls in play since returning, versus the .386 mark he gave up earlier in the year. There is no arguing that a good majority of that was probably bad luck rather than an inherent loss of skill. While the expectation is that Cishek is worse now than he was last year, the drop in talent probably was not that large. As a result, the loss in value should not have been too far for an acquiring team looking to pick up a strong potential arm.
Lack of Foresight
The problem is more that, because he has such a poor start to the year and got demoted from the closer spot, Cishek's face value has dropped significantly. The Marlins chose to trade him when his value was at its lowest, after he has already struggled and removed himself from the vaunted "closer status." Miami looked at his likely salaries next season and the year after and decided that they were not worth the price for a seventh- or eighth-inning reliever.
One might point out that, last year, Cishek looked like an elite reliever and a potential core piece, and one would be right about the former but not about the latter. As we discussed last season, the attrition rate on closers and relievers in general is very bad.
Once again, the attrition rate was at 75 percent. The high odds are that, if you are an elite closer over the previous three seasons, you will not be one for the next two.
The Marlins had a chance last year and this past offseason, with their status uncertain and the team boasting good relief depth, to trade Cishek at the height of his value and reap the rewards. The team had needs at various positions and lacked depth in those spots. With the numbers Cishek put up from 2012 to 2014 serving as a closer, he could have fetched a reasonable prospect return for the Marlins. For an acquiring team, they would get a guy whom they could plug either as a closer or a late-inning reliever and likely get good performance, even as unpredictable as relievers can be. For the Marlins, they could have avoided the uncertainty of relief pitching and divested themselves of a huge investment of resources, especially for a team with cheap tendencies. If your club is going to spend just $80 million a season on payroll or less, ten to 14 percent of that payroll cannot go into a closer.
Last year, we discussed Cishek's deadline trade value and pinned it at something like $15 million in surplus value. Even if we drop that down a tad, that would be enough to earn the Marlins a low top-100 prospect. Would you have been happy with Cishek for, say, Devon Travis (formerly) of the Detroit Tigers, Zach Lee of the Los Angeles Dodgers, or Clayton Blackburn of the San Francisco Giants? Those may have at least been possibilities if Miami had explored their options. Instead, they were concerned that trading a "proven closer" might anger Giancarlo Stanton and held Cishek, paying him a huge sum in his second arbitration season.
One year and 19 bad innings of baseball later and all the Marlins could get was a 25-year-old minor league reliever with control problems.
This shows the team's lack of foresight. It was evident to many fans that a franchise that cries poor like Miami could not afford to pay a hefty sum to hold onto a reliever given how often they can suddenly start to fail. Miami had the very problem occur to them in 2012 when they paid to watch Heath Bell burn in flames. The team lacked the foresight then to avoid a move, and they lacked the foresight last year to move on from Cishek before something like this happened. Instead, they confidently stuck with him and suffered the consequences. As a result, they suffered a huge opportunity cost and came away with very little.