Justin Bour was a perfect fit in the Marlins clubhouse, but incompatible with the type of team they hope to eventually contend with.
On August 10, the Fish completed a trade to send their first baseman to the Phillies along with nearly half a million dollars in cash in exchange for left-hander McKenzie Mills. Less than a month later, Bour is back in Miami, but wearing foreign colors for a new employer that still has meaningful games to play down the stretch.
Bour had true affection for the organization that allowed him to break through to the big leagues.
Bour: “Miami gave me the opportunity to become a big league baseball player, so I’m forever grateful for them.” pic.twitter.com/D1XeykOTFx— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) September 3, 2018
However, president of baseball operations Michael Hill spoke candidly after the announcement about what made him expendable (h/t Daniel Álvarez Montes, EvTV):
“We’ve been out front in talking about the type of players we think fit organizationally for us moving forward. We like athletes. We like players who are going to impact the ball on both sides—offensively, defensively, baserunning. Good athletes.”
Yeah, that sounds like...not Bour.
The 30-year-old provided zero defensive versatility, which is problematic in the National League where there’s no designated hitter. Using Bour as a fixture at first base had a ripple effect across the Marlins roster. Don Mattingly held his nose and used the clumsy Derek Dietrich in left field, and the experiment did not go well.
That, in turn, limited the available playing time for young outfielders like Magneuris Sierra and Austin Dean (who the Marlins recalled shortly after the trade). Thus far, both have been inferior players to Bour, but allowing them to build up this experience is far more important than the results.
Losing games down the stretch is in the franchise’s long-term interest, anyway. The Marlins are 7-14 since completing the trade, which has solidified their place near the top of the 2019 MLB draft order. They will select somewhere between No. 3 and No. 6 in the first round (and in every subsequent round). Those circumstances provide access to premier amateur talent. If handled properly, this is their opportunity to stock the farm system with legitimate depth.
Bour was producing below his historical norms in his fifth major league season—.227/.347/.412 (108 wRC+), 19 HR in 112 games. Was he “due” for a hot streak or was he simply coming back down to Earth after overachieving against left-handed pitching in 2017? Even if JB needed to go, could’ve they waited until the offseason?
Most MLB players are attainable at very team-friendly salaries during their arbitration-eligible years. Plodding sluggers like Bour are the exception. The process incentivizes durability, over-the-fence power and overall run production more so than stats that approximate actual player contributions to winning games.
Bour, earning $3.4 million in 2018, is due a significant raise heading into his age-31 campaign. His case seems very comparable to Brandon Belt, a fellow first baseman who jumped from $3.6 million in 2015 to $6.2 million in 2016.
It’s worth noting, though, that Belt was three years younger during those negotiations than Bour will be. His platoon splits weren’t as lopsided, his defense was superior, and the San Francisco Giants had deep enough pockets to field a competitive team around him despite the salary spike.
If you are a fan who was underwhelmed by the McKenzie Mills return, consider that the winter trade market likely would have forced the front office to settle for an even fringier asset. There are close facsimiles of Bour available to contenders in free agency who don’t require any prospect cost. The urgency of the Phillies’ postseason run made this deal possible.
Bour’s tenure in Miami should be remembered fondly. The former Rule 5 draft pick ascended to No. 3 on the Marlins Park all-time home run list and cherished all aspects of being a major leaguer.
Considering Michael Hill’s new roster construction philosophy, you might not see a player quite like him in a Marlins uniform for a long time.