It may be a long time from now, or it may come sooner than anyone expects, but the clock is ticking down again on the Miami Marlins and yet another superstar talent on their roster. This time, it's Jose Fernandez's clock that is winding down before free agency.
Consider how the early Marlins mistakes have cost the team time with their young superstar ace. The Fish gave Fernandez two more starts at the start of the 2013 regular season, despite the fact that they ended up limiting his innings by shutting him down at the tail end of that year. Because Fernandez spent three extra weeks in the majors, he got an entire year of service time for a 2013 season that was a complete waste in terms of wins. Miami gave Fernandez 12 innings at the start of the year instead of at the end of the season, and it cost them an entire year of team control time.
That very move is the reason why Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald had to make mention of the Marlins' being "resigned to losing" Fernandez eventually after the 2018 campaign.
### We hear Jose Fernandez’s camp believes he could make $30 million annually as a free agent after 2018. The Marlins indicate they are no longer getting trade calls for him (that's fine with them). But they are resigned to losing him eventually.
With the Marlins failing to extend Fernandez, the team is apparently not planning on paying Fernandez the huge $30 million annual salary that his camp believes he can get. Of course, to get to that type of salary, Fernandez will have to prove he can stay healthy first, but assuming he does, that sort of money does not seem unreasonable. If he maintains his performance over the next few years, Fernandez will be entering free agency at a very young age, just 26 years old. Clayton Kershaw was 26 years old heading into his final arbitration season when he received his seven-year, $216 million extension that made him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history at the time. Fernandez may not be at Kershaw's level just yet, but even at a slightly lesser level like that of David Price's, he would still earn a huge sum in the free market.
The question then becomes what the Marlins should do about this situation. The team already committed itself to a winning direction by signing Wei-Yin Chen, and conveniently they put themselves in a two-year window with Chen's free agent opt-out available after 2017. The Marlins know they have just a few years with Fernandez available. So when is the right time to make a move?
Trade Deadline 2016
This timing would only occur if the Marlins are struggling badly starting this year. As Marlins fans, we are well aware of the possibility that Jeffrey Loria will flip out at the sight of a 35-45 start to the season and panic to dismantle the roster among players who are not team-controlled. That would almost certainly lead to a trade of Marcell Ozuna, who is already in the doghouse with Loria and the Fish. But could it also lead to a Fernandez deal?
It seems not unreasonable. The Marlins were fielding calls on Fernandez, as much as they would like to deny that rumor. They also have to know that this trade deadline gives them the most likely largest haul. Still, the Marlins have rarely dealt superstar players in the middle of the season. The last time the team dealt star talent in the middle of the year, the motivation was either a lack of team control beyond the season (Anibal Sanchez) or salary-cutting purposes (Hanley Ramirez). They even waited until the end of the year to clear out bigger salaries like Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson after the 2012 season.
Ultimately, this seems less likely unless the Marlins are a in a complete tailspin by the end of June. The 2012 Fish were 37-40 by the end of that month thanks to a disastrous June, and the club still withheld a full-on fire-sale assault until the end of the year. They would have to be in cellar to consider moving Fernandez then.
This seems like a more likely scenario in case the Marlins lose out in 2016. The precedent is there: the Marlins dealt both Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis after their first arbitration seasons in the offseason leading into 2008. The reason they made those deals was in large part because they knew they couldn't (or were not willing to afford) Cabrera on a long-term deal, which is the exact same situation they have with Fernandez. Similarly, the thought was that any deal with Giancarlo Stanton would have to be made during the 2015 offseason because the team would get the best deal available by trading two arbitration seasons instead of one.
This would be the best move if the team was truly considering rebuilding. Trading Fernandez is never going to be a popular proposition, but the Fish will have to do it if they find that this current core is not competing, and this will give that core at least one season to prove their mettle. It will also provide Fernandez a full season to prove his health, thus letting him build trade value. This is likely the height of his trade value.
Trade Deadline 2017
This is the David Price plan. Price was dealt a year and a half in advance of his free agency and earned his former Tampa Bay Rays a decent haul once the Rays realized they were not re-signing him. The Rays were 53-55 at that time, but they were also seven games back of the Wild Card. The Marlins would have to similarly be out of contention, but in this case, they do not necessarily have to be playing at a terrible, cellar-dweller level. Miami may be willing to make a progressive move for the future like the Rays did even if the club isn't faltering terribly.
This is the most likely time period for a move. Miami would find the best balance of value and time remaining with Fernandez to prove the team's competitiveness. Price was dealt for Drew Smyly, a three-win starter with four years of tea control remaining, and Nick Franklin, who at the time was a low top-100 prospect. This is not the most amazing prospect haul on the planet, but it was still a good deal for the Rays for someone who was not staying.
This appears less likely. If the Marlins were not competitive, they should have dealt Fernandez at the deadline. If the team was still at a competitive level, they likely would not deal Fernandez at that point and risk him in 2018 for a final run for the playoffs.
Trade Deadline 2018
This is the other scenario that Jackson discusses. If the Marlins remain competitive for these next three seasons, the team may opt to keep Fernandez until the 2018 trade deadline, when they may finally make a move.
Like the above scenario, however, I do not see this panning out. If the Fish are still playing well before the deadline, they are far less likely to be sellers even if Fernandez is assured not to stay. Miami could take a supplemental draft pick after the season is over (provided those still exist in the newest collective bargaining agreement) and let Fernandez help make a final run for contention. It is not as though Loria has not offered to buy for a competitive Marlins team, as he has made deadline moves to improve the roster in many years in which the team was close.
There is also precedent for Miami keeping its pitching talent in the past. The Marlins retained Carl Pavano and A.J. Burnett to take draft picks under the old CBA, and while those draft picks were always better selections at the time, the team could justify taking the pick if it meant being better positioned for a playoff run.
This trade would only occur if the Fish disappointed in 2018 after high expectations. This is the Anibal Sanchez scenario that occurred in 2012, when the impending free agent Sanchez was dealt to Detroit when the Marlins were faltering.