Coming off a season of 105 losses and lacking established core players at the major league level, the Marlins aren’t yet within striking distance of being a decent team (much less a World Series contender). And yet, several key advantages work in their favor: an elite farm system, set to receive even more reinforcements via the 2020 MLB Draft; continuity at leadership positions within the front office and the dugout; and “financial flexibility.”
In plain English, the owners are pocketing most of their money rather than upgrading the current roster. They anticipate that homegrown players will eventually produce and merit long-term contract extensions. Once those building blocks emerge, they’ll need to pursue free agents to plug any remaining holes on the depth chart and take advantage of their precious competitive window.
But in the meantime, fans should not endorse total frugality.
The Miami Dolphins made a creative trade on Tuesday, acquiring (injured) veteran cornerback Aqib Talib and a fifth-round draft pick from the Los Angeles Rams. They absorbed Talib’s $4.2 million of remaining salary obligations without expecting to use him on the field. This was essentially buying an extra draft pick to accelerate their own rebuild.
Although NFL and MLB transactions are dictated by two entirely separate set of rules, the Marlins ought to follow the Phins’ strategy here. Why not try to use their uncommitted dollars to stockpile more controllable young talent?
I have picked out four particular contracts to target in trades. As a “thank you” for providing salary relief in these situations, the Marlins could expect to receive a significant asset, ranging from a 2019-20 international bonus pool slot to prospects on the cusp of breaking through to The Show.
RHP David Robertson (Phillies)
Robertson had a low-key fantastic stretch of consistency from 2010-18, exceeding 60 appearances and 60 innings pitched in each of those seasons. His worst ERA was 3.82 and his worst FIP was 3.58.
The right-hander took the unorthodox step of representing himself in free agency last year. He secured a two-year, $23 million deal from the Phillies that included various incentives tied to major awards (All-Star, Gold Glove, Cy Young, etc.). But mere weeks into the 2019 campaign, Robertson was sidelined by elbow soreness. Finally in mid-August, he went under the knife to repair a torn flexor tendon and ulnar collateral ligament. The timing of the surgery puts his availability for 2020 in serious doubt.
Anxious to rebound from a disappointing season, the Phillies have numerous holes to patch of their pitching staff. Shedding Robertson’s final $13 million—$11 million salary in 2020 and $2 million buyout of his 2021 option—would make it easier to go all-in like their fanbase expects.
Also worth noting, Marlins CEO Derek Jeter was longtime teammates with Robertson on the Yankees (including the 2009 championship team).
RHP Wade Davis (Rockies)
Davis and Coors Field are an awful fit for one another. He owns a 7.46 earned run average in home games during his two seasons in Colorado; among the 330 MLB pitchers with 50-plus home innings in that same span, he ranks 329th in ERA. The peripheral numbers aren’t quite as grisly, but it’s apparent that the former postseason hero is not the steady, high-leverage weapon he was advertised to be.
Entering 2020, the Rockies find themselves in a bind. Huge extensions for Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon have kicked in and Trevor Story is earning closer to his true market value via arbitration. They must be efficient in assembling the supporting cast around those stars, which makes Davis’ guaranteed $18 million a mighty obstacle.
The Marlins would have significant leverage here. If comfortable with paying the vast majority of the remaining contract, they could set their sights on a recently drafted pitcher like RHP Will Ethridge or RHP Ryan Feltner (both featured on MLB Pipeline’s Rockies Top 30 prospects list).
RHP Tyler Chatwood (Cubs)
Chatwood’s total loss of control in 2018 (95 BB in 103.2 IP, less than 50% first-pitch strikes) removed him from Chicago’s starting rotation plans. He looked far more comfortable as a reliever this past season, though the overall lack of consistency will make it difficult for him to justify his upcoming $13 million salary in 2020.
The Cubs haven’t been shy about their intentions to unload some expensive vets this winter. And for all of Chatwood’s flaws, maybe pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. can find a way to harness his 96 mile-per-hour fastball.
Because the Cubs have drained their entire 2019-20 international bonus pool, they would need to find complementary piece(s) from their already-thin farm system to facilitate a trade.
OF Jacoby Ellsbury (Yankees)
The Yankees must have known that the end of Ellsbury’s contract could get ugly. Speed-reliant players seldom flourish into their mid-30’s, especially when injuries take their toll.
But this is an extreme case. Due to a combination of lower-body, oblique and (most recently) hip injuries, Ellsbury has not competed in a regular season game since 2017. Not even minor league rehab assignments!
Working around his dead weight, the outfield is actually a strength of the Yankees organization moving forward. There’s seemingly no circumstance that would open up substantial playing time for Ellsbury in 2020. Deteriorating arm strength limits his usefulness to left field, and the high-volume base-stealing that once made him a star has since been de-emphasized across the majors. Meanwhile, the Yanks have other offseason upgrades to contemplate and would surely prefer to avoid steep luxury tax payments and penalties.
I don’t expect the Marlins to take on Ellsbury’s full $26.1 million (2020 salary plus 2021 buyout), but with a couple toolsy Yankees prospects included to sweeten the offer, perhaps there’s a middle ground that makes sense for both teams. From there, they’d simply need Ellsbury to waive his no-trade clause, a fairly easy “yes” if he values getting a clean slate and continuing his career beyond next season.
1B Miguel Cabr—just kidding, just kidding
There isn’t enough nostalgia in the world to push this through. The four years and $124 million still owed to the declining Hall of Famer is crippling to the Tigers.
The day will come—once their new, lucrative local television deal kicks in—for the Fish to put their long-term trust in productive players, rather than cleaning up other teams’ messes. Choose wisely, though.