What a difference a year makes. No, seriously—think about how it felt to be a Miami Marlins fan on this date in 2017.
Despite generating some buzz early that offseason with the pursuit of a top-flight closer, the club was wrapping up its business relatively quietly. Yup, wrapping up, because this was before Major League Baseball owners tried to collude against free agents, analytically driven general managers challenged the sport’s economic system, or whatever you believe is currently going on. Rosters had mostly been settled.
The Marlins neared spring training with a franchise-record payroll, thanks to veteran pitching additions like Edinson Volquez and Brad Ziegler. They now sought somebody more cost-efficient to eat innings.
On Jan. 19, president of baseball operations Mike Hill snagged right-hander Dan Straily from the rebuilding Cincinnati Reds.
“We got what we wanted,” Hill said once the deal was finalized (h/t Tim Healey, Sun Sentinel). “We know...we gave up quality, but in return we felt like we were getting quality in someone who will have an immediate impact on our 2017 season.”
In a vacuum, this was not a terrible transaction, but Hill’s comments were a gross oversimplification of the risks involved from the Marlins’ perspective. With a dwindling war chest of available resources, they decided to pin their hopes on Dan Straily moving the needle from lackluster to playoff-caliber?
Oh, to be a fly on the wall within the front office right now as Hill tries to justify it to his new colleagues. The Derek Jeter/Bruce Sherman leadership have since brought in baseball ops personnel around him to oversee a thorough rebuild of their own.
Luis Castillo—the gifted right-hander traded away for Straily—is already sorely missed.
As a reminder, there were actually four players involved in the deal. Castillo was just the centerpiece of a package leaving Miami:
- Marlins acquire RHP Dan Straily
- Reds acquire RHP Luis Castillo, RHP Austin Brice and OF Isaiah White
Brice and White ranked ninth and 15th, respectively, on MLB Pipeline’s list of top Marlins prospects at the time, per MLB Trade Rumors. Although not so highly regarded across the scouting universe, these departures still hurt the depth of a farm system that was considered a laughingstock even with their contributions.
Approaching his age-24 campaign, Castillo was a tier above them. Pipeline ranked him fifth, while Baseball America placed him in the No. 2 spot, behind only 2016 draft pick Braxton Garrett (who hadn’t thrown a professional pitch at that point).
Perhaps there was some doubt as to whether Castillo would stick in a major league rotation. He had only logged 40 pro starts (versus 115 relief appearances) prior to the deal.
However, the Dominican stud flaunted a fiery fastball/sharp slider combination that has been the key to countless successful careers. With some commonplace service time manipulation, his franchise could get seven seasons of production on the active roster until he qualified for free agency. Even a late-inning reliever is a valuable asset under those circumstances.
So basically, the Marlins preferred Straily to Castillo because Castillo wasn’t going to be MLB-ready by Opening Day. He had only ascended to Double-A at the very end of the previous summer. Additional development was required.
But their evaluation of Straily was straight-up perplexing.
The former 24th-round draft pick exceeded everybody’s expectations as an Oakland Athletics farmhand. He backed that up with a decent major league debut in 2013, then battled through control issues and became expendable. A series of transactions sent him from Oakland to Chicago to Houston to San Diego, at which point he was claimed by the Reds in April 2016.
Straily established new career highs across the board at age 27: earned run average (3.76 ERA) and adjusted earned run average (113 ERA+); starts (31 GS) and innings pitched (191.1 IP); strikeouts (162 K) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.22 K/BB).
On the other hand, his peripherals (4.88 FIP/5.02 xFIP) suggested that those run prevention marks wouldn’t be sustainable. Straily had been tied for the NL lead with 31 homers allowed. Opponents also posted a .220 batting average on balls that didn’t leave the yard, an indicator that he benefited from good fortune.
Sure enough, despite working home games at cavernous Marlins Park, there was some regression:
2017 MLB Stats Comparison
Castillo thrived in the Double-A Southern League for nearly half the season and still almost matched Straily in terms of MLB production (1.7 fWAR to Straily’s 2.0 fWAR). On an inning-for-inning basis, he was clearly better than the journeyman.
The disparity in quality may get worse in 2018. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections anticipate a step forward for Castillo (2.9 zWAR) and struggles for Straily (1.0 zWAR), assuming they have comparable innings totals.
How do you feel about that, Fish fans?
It bears repeating that the Marlins considered this a win-now move. Trading Castillo was defensible if it led to the acquisition of a top-of-the-rotation starter. But Straily is the epitome of average.
Second-guessing this embarrassment, the Marlins could’ve stood pat with Castillo through the opening months of the 2017 season. Wait to see legitimate evidence that the major league roster could contend, then swing a deal to bolster the rotation prior to July’s non-waiver trade deadline if appropriate.
That alternate universe probably plays out much like reality, where mediocrity motivated the rebuild. At least then, the Marlins would have a brighter future—a third exciting flamethrower to join Sandy Alcantara and Jorge Guzman in their long-term plans.