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Marlins expected to shed nearly $50 million in payroll. How do they get there?

Breaking down the possibilities.

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Joe Skipper/Getty Images

With the news reported by Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald that the Marlins intend to run with a $90 million dollar payroll next season, it has become abundantly clear that some of the current roster is on it’s way out.

Not that we didn’t see it coming from Derek Jeter’s previous remarks. In his introductory press conference, he all but said that a rebuild was coming.

Getting to $90 million dollars or thereabouts with an anticipated $140 million 2018 opening day payroll is a little tricky as you might imagine. The Marlins have a large amount of money invested in one player. The Marlins have a fair amount of money tied up in players who will be limited next season, if they are able to play at all. Then, even if they do manage to get to their target number, they still have to field a team that isn’t a complete laughing stock.

Let’s examine the possibilities, shall we?

The Pipe Dream

Edinson Volquez, Wei-Yin Chen, and Martin Prado will combine to take up a staggering $44.5 million dollars in 2018 payroll. Volquez was brought in to help off-set the loss of Jose Fernandez. He didn’t quite do that, bowing out mid-season with the elbow injury, but the no-hitter was a nice bonus in another losing season for the Fish. Prado’s contract got mixed reviews at the time of it’s signing, but it definitely looks bad now, with Brian Anderson’s emergence and Prado’s lingering knee issues. Chen was an overpay from the start, almost a requirement to get a long-term commitment from a polished starting pitcher, coming to a market that hasn’t seen a winning season since 2009 and the postseason since 2003. The contract already looked bad when he was on the mound. Now that he hasn’t been able to stay on said mound, it might be one of the worst in baseball.

If the Marlins could trade that trio — say, to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for a couple of fidget spinners and a gift card to the best clam chowder house in New England — they’d only need to jettison another $5.5 million in player contracts to reach their goal.

The offensive core would remain largely intact, placating a significant portion of the fanbase, and the Marlins could then turn their attention to digging around for low-cost gems in an attempt to bolster the starting rotation.

This, unfortunately, is a fantasy.

Volquez, recovering from Tommy John surgery, is a guaranteed sunk cost. Teams have no incentive to take on his contract as his ability to even make a late season appearance is in serious doubt. I guess the one good piece of news here is that his contract is up at the conclusion of the 2018 season, a guaranteed $13 million off the books.

Prado could theoretically rebuild his value to the point of being interesting to a contender at the 2018 deadline, at which point he’ll only be owed shy of $20 million through the end of the 2019 season. He’ll also be 35 years old with re-occurring leg issues. Nevertheless, some team might place a high value on his historical ability to man multiple positions, consistent bat and clubhouse leadership. That is at the 2018 trading deadline, though. For now, his productivity in 2018 is a question mark, and that makes him very unlikely to be moved.

Chen continues to somehow avoid the fate of Volquez, with PRP injections keeping his elbow inflammation at bay. Barring further setbacks, Chen may even be able to open the season in the starting rotation. The situation is volatile, however, and Chen’s injury history combined with the large sum of money attached to his deal ($50 million dollars over the life of the deal with an additonal $16 million dollar vesting player option in 2021) makes trading him very difficult.

There are scenarios in which you can imagine pairing up one of these bad contracts with a not-so-bad contract, but eliminating all three from the payroll in 2018 just isn’t going to happen.

The Probable

Giancarlo Stanton does not want to be involved in another Marlins rebuild.

The Miami Marlins are rebuilding.

It seems only a matter of time, then, that the team and their prodigious slugger part ways. Shedding Stanton’s $25 million 2018 obligation (and, preferably, the $295 million remaining on his contract) would obviously go a long way in and of itself toward bringing the payroll down, both in 2018 and in the years to come.

Stanton doesn’t want to leave Miami. He recently purchased a beautiful penthouse in the heart of the city and has expressed his love for the area on numerous occasions. I believe he’s telling the truth when he says that he wants to stay.

I also believe that he is tired of losing, and would listen if (when) Jeter approaches him on the subject of a trade and the necessity of a rebuild. Stanton would have to waive his no-trade clause in order for any deal to go through; it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t, given the circumstances.

We know that there is interest, and where there is a will, there is a way. Getting another team to take on the entire contract would be a major early coup for the Jeter/Sherman ownership group, regardless of whether they received any talent back in return. It is logistically challenging, no doubt, but entirely feasible.

The Practical

Marlins brass knew going into 2017 that getting long outings from their starting rotation was going to be a tall task, so they brought in a couple of veteran arms in Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa to help bolster an already strong pen (on paper). Unfortunately, the super pen concept didn’t work out quite as planned, and now, heading into 2018, the aforementioned two will combine to make $16 million.

On a team not expected to compete, there is really no need to be paying any reliever over two million dollars, let alone $16 million. Ziegler re-established some value toward the end of the season, notching ten saves and showing that he could still generate outs, accumulating .5 fWAR in the process. While Tazawa had a stretch of competence mid-season, he was largely ineffective, posting a 5.69 ERA/4.61 FIP over 55.1 innings pitched. Disturbingly, his K/9 rate dropped substantially from ‘16 to ‘17 (9.79 to 6.18).

Still, either could conceivably be packaged alongside coveted talent, with the receiving team hopeful that they would turn around and provide legitimate value to their new ball club. It would be an upset given the club’s goals if at least one of the two weren’t gone by Spring Training.

Dee Gordon rebounded nicely from his suspension-shortened 2016 campaign, hitting .308/.341/.375 in almost 700 plate appearances, racking up a league-leading 60 stolen bases in the process. He’s a fun player to watch, so I’m going to miss him...because there is no way he isn’t traded before 2018 kicks off.

The Marlins are going to need to play Martin Prado next year to build back up his trade value, and with Brian Anderson also needing playing time and the competent Derek Dietrich lingering in the background, Gordon has become a luxury that a rebuilding squad cannot afford. Fortunately, despite a decent sized contract (a potential $50.5 million through 2021), the Marlins should be able to find a taker for Gordon’s services.

Parting with Ziegler, Tazawa, and Gordon would net the Marlins $26.5 million in salary relief. You combine that with a successful removal of Stanton’s contract, and the Fish have met their $90 million dollar goal.

The Painful

The aforementioned moves would get the Marlins to $90 million, but it wouldn’t be enough. The Marlins still need to field a team, after all, and we can’t reasonably expect them to do that solely utilizing the depleted farm system. They are going to have to pay a little bit to bring in free agents to replace some of the departing talent.

In all likelihood, this means that the team will have to eliminate more than $50 million dollars in 2018 obligations.

Enter Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich.

Ozuna, on the strength of his outstanding 2017 campaign, could be in for a raise that would bring him potentially to a $10 million dollar plus contract in 2018. The club controls him for one more year beyond that, and then he’s a free agent. If Jeff Loria were still the owner, I’d give him an almost zero percent chance of sticking around, after he was unceremoniously sent to the minors a couple years back.

Now, I still give him a very small chance of re-signing, and not just because the circumstances surrounding the team has changed. As a Scott Boras client, Ozuna will almost certainly test the market. Further, as one of the best cost-controlled players the team has, Ozuna can be parlayed into a valuable return, or combined with a bad contract on a still valuable return.

Ditto Yelich, who while eminently affordable is perhaps the team’s greatest trade asset. If the Marlins have any hope of eliminating some of the more onerous deals on the books, they’re going to have to strongly consider parting with Ozuna and Yelich (to say nothing of the cheaper but about to get more expensive JT Realmuto, Justin Bour, Dan Straily and/or Derek Dietrich).

The Prediction

Giancarlo Stanton, Dee Gordon, Brad Ziegler, Marcell Ozuna and Wei-Yin Chen are all moved, with the bulk of the financial obligation being picked up by the other teams.

The 2018 Marlins’ roster is likely to be substantially different compared to their previous few iterations, but the substance of said roster remains very much up in the air. The only thing we know for certain is that Derek Jeter’s cellphone is going to be ringing off the hook all winter long.

Salary figures courtesy of Baseball Prospectus/Cots contracts, projections courtesy of Roster Resource.