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How should Marlins handle Wei-Yin Chen?

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Almost a year to the day of his last major league start, Chen will make his 2018 Marlins debut. So...now what?

Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Not even midway through the most lucrative pitcher contract in Marlins history, left-hander Wei-Yin Chen had become an afterthought.

One of the few certainties about the 2018 roster entering spring training was that Chen would be unavailable for Opening Day (h/t Sun Sentinel). He was advised to take a deliberate approach in preparing to play through a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Any setback would require a lengthy rest period, or possibly aggravate the injury and lead to dreaded Tommy John surgery.

To Chen’s credit, he persevered. The 32-year-old progressed from live batting practice to a simulated game to a bullpen session to an extended spring game to a pair of rehab starts with the Marlins High-A Jupiter affiliate. According to Craig Mish of SiriusXM, he will return from the disabled list when the Fish host the Rockies on Saturday.

However, Chen now shares a clubhouse with many unfamiliar faces, competing for a team that’s only “competing” for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 MLB amateur draft. Although qualified for a spot in this unproven Marlins rotation, he is far removed from the type of production that would entice a contending team to consider pursuing a trade. He has been roughly a league-average starting pitcher in 31 appearances with Miami (4.72 ERA, 4.34 FIP, 1.4 fWAR). That’s without factoring in the significant risk that his UCL could snap.

Even more so than lack of quality or durability, Chen’s contract is problematic. It would be one thing for Jeffrey Loria to just overpay him in free agency (five years, $80 million), but the main obstacle for new ownership is the deal’s comically back-loaded structure. Consider that only two free-agent pitchers this past offseason—Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish—exceeded the $60 million guarantee that Chen will receive during the 2018-2020 seasons. Probably goes without saying that those other veterans provide greater upside, not to mention their franchises have stronger revenue streams to offset the steep costs.

Wei-Yin Chen contract (thanks, Loria!)

Year Base Salary Signing Bonus Total
Year Base Salary Signing Bonus Total
2016 $6 million $6 million
2017 $9 million $5 million $14 million
2018 $10 million $8 million $18 million
2019 $20 million $20 million
2020 $22 million $22 million
$67 million $13 million $80 million

The Marlins were willing to eat $30 million of the Giancarlo Stanton contract to facilitate a trade to the Yankees, but that was a means of ensuring that quality prospects would come back in return (right-hander Jorge Guzman and shortstop Jose Devers). No rational front office is parting with legitimate talent for Chen, regardless of the financial details.

Chen has yet to step on a major league mound this season and, in the view of most projection systems, the Marlins are already eliminated from playoff contention. This begs the question of how to balance the veteran’s obvious desire to pitch with the overriding objective of their 2018 campaign: evaluating young players at the highest level.

Should they go to a six-man rotation, so rookies like Trevor Richards and Dillon Peters aren’t squeezed down to Triple-A? If they keep it at five, maybe designate a pitcher to “piggyback” off of Chen in the middle innings, limiting his workload while also getting the younger guy work on a regular basis? Or is it time to go all-in on the idea of converting Chen into an impact reliever? Miami’s bullpen doesn’t currently include any lefties, anyway, and there’s precedent for ordinary starters dominating in a more specialized role. Just a crazy idea to salvage some trade value.

We want to see some creativity from you in the comments!