As I read the debate over whether the Miami Marlins should trade Marcell Ozuna, I heard arguments from both sides regarding Ozuna's upside. There is an argument that says that Ozuna is a ticking time bomb and that the best thing the Marlins can do is salvage any remaining value as a "bounce back candidate" trade asset and divulge itself of this investment. If you read the article, you will know I am of the opinion that the Marlins have little to lose waiting a pre-arbitration year and seeing if Ozuna can rebuild his trade value rather than giving up on him too soon.
The reason why I feel this way is that the Marlins have given up on a fair number of young talents too soon before realizing their potential. The Marlins traded Cameron Maybin before he put up a four-win season in San Diego, and while he was subsequently injured later on in his career, he also bounced back and provided reasonable value for the Braves this year. The Marlins traded Andrew Miller for nothing, and the Red Sox took advantage by sending Miller to the bullpen; he is now an elite lefty reliever and is now the closer for the Yankees. The club was disappointed in 24 mediocre innings by Andrew Heaney in his debut and traded him as part of the deal to acquire Dee Gordon. Heaney is now a solid contributor to the Angels' rotation. The Fish sold on Nathan Eovaldi potentially bouncing back, and he has been about league average for the Yankees this year.
Selling low is a trend for the Marlins franchise. The club has sold low on numerous assets and gotten minimal returns by the end of the deal. At the same time, the club has used some assets to the polar opposite, to buy high on players they like. The Fish traded prospects Colin Moran and Jake Marisnick for Jarred Cosart on the back of the sort of performance that he just could sustain. The team traded four players, all potential contributors in the majors as early as 2015, for Dee Gordon and the free corpse of Dan Haren. Gordon had just had an All-Star season but also a horrid second half, and his overall performance may have been his ceiling as a player.
The examples of buying high and selling low continue. The 2013 fire sale trade with the Blue Jays was a perfect example of trading off a series of players and selling low on the team, having dismantled it after essentially half a disappointing season. Cody Ross was still a valuable player heading into his second arbitration season, but had a relative down year compared to his previous campaign. Instead of opting to pay for the remainder of his season and see if he would bounce back, the team simply let him go to the Giants in waivers in order to save his salary. He then went on to help the Giants win the World Series. The club made enough inferences about sticking with Casey McGehee at third base heading into this year that the team buying high on his strong half-season in Miami was a real threat.
If the Marlins were playing the stock market, they would be playing it very poorly. They are not following the basic premises of asset acquisition, which is to find undervalued assets on the mend and buying them up when they are cheap and selling them off if and when they succeed. It feels as though, despite the club's lack of assets, they still opt for what appear to be "sure things" based on overinflated numbers like low ERAs or high RBI counts.
Part of that is the fact that the team has a hard time assessing players due to its lack of a statistical side of the conversation. However, another part of that almost feels as though the club is too risk-averse to be playing at this level of payroll. The Marlins own the lowest payroll in baseball this year, as they often did in many of the last 13 years under Jeffrey Loria's ownership. That does not appear to be unlikely to change. However, for a low-payroll team that needs things to go right, the Marlins sure do avoid the risks that come with asset acquisition in favor of cold realism, often in the form of cash.
Two types of teams can and should be risk-seeking. One type of team is the richest class in baseball, your Yankees and Dodgers. Those types of teams can afford to spend money on risks because they have so much money to spend. If Miller had flopped in New York, it would have left only a small dent on the team's payroll. The Dodgers are paying four outfielders a total of $62 million, and one of them is not a starter and the other is not on their team any more.
The other team that should be riskier is the low-payroll team looking to contend. Their risks are of a different variety. Low-payroll teams should use their limited funds in acquiring more high-risk, high-reward assets and gamble that the rewards will come through. The Rays have been flipping assets like this for years. The Athletics have used this method to stay in contention despite only marginally developing their own players. The Astros and Cubs have rebuilt their farm systems and rosters by attempting to make shrewd moves and not being afraid to pay for talent and take gambles. Not all the gambles work out (the 2015 A's are a great example). However, they pay off dividends in spades when they do, and the cost is relatively cheaper than heading into free agency looking for sure things.
The Marlins spend and act like they are a middle-tier payroll club, a team that can afford a certain amount of talent but has to be extremely careful lest they cripple themselves with a backbreaking contrast. Sure enough, the second any contract appears more onerous, the Marlins are fast to do the opposite of what a low-payroll team should: they pay talent to get rid of salary. The Braves ate salary to take on talent in a year in which they planned on being down and at a lower payroll level. The Marlins, instead, send trade assets like Mat Latos and a compensatory draft pick that they likely need desperately to get rid of salaries like Michael Morse's. The same thing happened with Gaby Sanchez in 2012 and Garrett Jones in 2014 (always with first basemen, it seems). They trade a significant asset like Eovaldi only to guarantee themselves wins by getting Martin Prado, but only after they got salary back for him.
The Fish are too risk-averse to gamble at the big boy table. When you do not have a lot of chips, you have to take risks to gather up more, and that occasionally means going all-in strategically. Sometimes that means forcing your opponents' hands with the right type of move. The Marlins are simply betting the blinds, checking at every point, and trying to gather small pots only. Once they get one or two bad beats, they are jumping off of the table in a relative hurry and cashing out without much resistance. When you are the middle stack, you can play a little safer to protect what you have. The Marlins do not have anything, so if they are going to make a move, it needs to have a high potential value. The Fish just do not go for that kind of gusto, and that safe approach has eaten away into the team's talent pool.