Wei-Yin Chen is not the enemy here. That’s where I’d like to begin: by making it clear that professional athletes who use free agency to secure the best possible deals for themselves and their families are just doing what any of us would do under the same circumstances.
Fresh off a 3.34 earned run average and 19.3 percent strikeout rate—both career bests—in the Baltimore Orioles rotation, Chen hit the open market following the 2015 season. The Marlins figured he would continue as a durable, slightly above-average starter, moving them one step closer to building a complete team around a core of star-studded position players.
They were wrong. It’s time to do something about it.
Chen’s 2.4 fWAR per season average with Baltimore has plummeted to 0.9 fWAR per season since coming to Miami. He will earn $20 million in 2019 thanks to the back-loaded nature of his contract, more than every other pitcher on the projected Marlins Opening Day roster combined. The commitment increases to $22 million in 2020. As if that wasn’t unappetizing for potential trade partners, Chen continues to pitch through a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. He is headed for surgery and a lengthy stint on the injured list if that UCL gives out.
The Taiwanese left-hander is mediocre and immovable, so why not cut him?
MLB teams have set a recent precedent for swallowing large pills like this once there’s no more value to salvage from them. Midway through a five-year deal with then-prospect Rafael Devers breathing down his neck, the Red Sox said goodbye to Pablo Sandoval in July 2017. The veteran third baseman was still owed nearly $48 million. This past December, the Blue Jays parted ways with two years and $38 million of Troy Tulowitzki, skeptical of what he had left in the tank after undergoing surgeries on both heels.
In each example, those decision-makers felt empowered to cut their losses because they hadn’t been responsible for the acquisitions in the first place; in Boston, Dave Dombrowski succeeded Ben Cherington, and Toronto’s Mark Shapiro forced out Alex Anthopoulos. Similarly, a revamped Miami front office—with the exception of Michael Hill—should have blinders on, focused solely on serving the franchise’s best interests moving forward.
The 2019 Marlins rotation is completely filled. Starting on Opening Day again, José Ureña remains the ace after his September surge. Ordinary as his pure stuff may be, Dan Straily draws rave reviews from younger pitchers for his clubhouse presence and can be trusted for durability. Trevor Richards and Sandy Alcántara have nothing left to prove at Triple-A—time to see what they are capable of over 30-plus major league starts.
Then there’s Pablo López, who appears poised for a breakout in the opinion of several experienced scouts (via Baseball America):
“You see some guys get called up with good minor league numbers by a bad team and it feels like he might not really have stuff, they just need a guy to start Thursday. From afar that’s what I thought it was, then I went to see him and it was like, ‘This guy is a guy.’ Fastball was firm 92-95, the breaking ball looks sharp, changeup was good, used it against righties and lefties. It wasn’t like his velocity is what excited you, it was his command, but it’s better to have command at 92-95 than 88-89.”
So that’s five starters. What about depth?
After beginning the spring in simulated games, Caleb Smith continued his journey back from a severe lat injury with a triumphant Grapefruit League debut against the Cardinals on Wednesday. The 27-year-old struck out the first four batters he faced, logging four perfect innings overall.
MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro says the Marlins won’t hurry him back for Opening Day. Nonetheless, he is close to full strength by all accounts. After showing legit promise as a rookie, he ought to be the next man up in case a spot becomes available.
The tier below Smith includes Zac Gallen, Jeff Brigham and reigning Marlins Minor League Pitcher of the Year Nick Neidert. If they need a veteran stopgap to eat innings at any point, call up Hector Noesí—at least he has a more durable recent track record than Chen and a dirt-cheap, single-season contract that’s extremely movable at the trade deadline should he exceed expectations.
The Marlins may try to hide Chen as a reliever, but that serves no purpose. Adam Conley and Jarlin García are available out of the bullpen to handle left-handed batters. José Quijada—also on the 40-man roster—can be their understudy. Meanwhile, Chen’s underwhelming fastball velocity and loopy breaking balls do not seem well-suited for high-leverage work where it’s critical to generate swinging strikes and manage quality of contact.
A byproduct of the trades that dismantled the previous core, the Marlins have reinvigorated their organization with several waves of exciting impact arms. Holding onto Chen any longer would be irresponsibly stunting their progress and antagonizing fans who are ready to turn the page on this disastrous investment.