During David Samson’s tenure as Florida/Miami Marlins president (2002-2017), he traded players at a furious pace. In most cases, these were players his front office determined were too expensive, too old or too close to free agency. But on the rare occasion that the Fish were legitimately competitive at the major league level, Samson “went for it,” using the organization’s prospect depth to acquire proven veterans to address deficiencies on the active roster. Those moves were critical to the 2003 World Series title, but backfired at an astonishing rate in subsequent years. One of the most infamous: sending right-hander Luis Castillo to the Cincinnati Reds for Dan Straily.
In total, the Marlins actually parted with a package of three young players. Outfielder Zeek White was a lottery ticket type who has since washed out of affiliated baseball, but right-hander Austin Brice offered intriguing versatility and six years of club control. He had tangible value in the transaction.
The headliner, of course, was Castillo. He had been initially included in a July 2016 trade to San Diego. However, after Colin Rea’s elbow exploded in his first appearance for the Fish, Major League Baseball determined that the Padres had not been transparent with their players’ medical information. Both pitchers returned to their original teams.
Castillo worked 31 2⁄3 more innings after that, maintaining a 2.27 earned run average and finishing the campaign at Double-A Jacksonville. His fastball showed plus potential and his secondaries were coming along nicely. Over the past two seasons combined, he had walked only 6% of all batters faced. Baseball America ranked him as the No. 2 prospect in Miami’s otherwise thin farm system heading into 2017.
As a guest on Tuesday’s episode of The Journeyman Podcast—hosted by Straily himself—Samson stands by his decision because the Marlins were so desperate for immediate rotation reinforcements:
“The trade where we acquired (Straily) is a trade that I would make every day. Knowing what I know about Luis Castillo, I would make that trade still every day. And people don’t get it.
“It’s not that I defend it, because I don’t care to defend it. I don’t need to defend it. I try to explain to people why we would want someone like Dan Straily, what he meant to our team, what our evaluation was of him, what our evaluation was of Luis Castillo...
“In that spot at that moment and—by the way, Dan—in this spot in this moment, I would still make that trade.”
To Straily’s credit, he was arguably the most productive Marlins starter from 2017-2018 (4.20 ERA, 4.79 FIP, 2.0 fWAR in 304.0 IP). Up until his release at the end of 2019 Spring Training, fellow pitchers in the organization raved about him as a quality teammate. Two months into his first season with the Lotte Giants of the Korea Baseball Organization, he’s enjoying the kind of consistent success that should earn him a guaranteed contract to return to MLB in 2021.
“For us,” Samson tells Straily, “you were supposed to be a middle- to the top-of-the-rotation No. 2/No. 3, is what you were supposed to be. That is what you are to me.”
Well...that’s getting carried away when you consider Straily’s performance and skill set back then. His breakout year with the Reds in 2016 had been buoyed by an unsustainable .239 BABIP and allowing many of his 31 homers at fortuitous times. Moving his home appearances to run-suppressing Marlins Park could only do so much to stave off regression.
But what flips this trade’s legacy from disappointing to egregious is Castillo. The momentum he had in late 2016 carried over to his new organization. He thrived at Double-A with his rapidly improving changeup and entered Cincinnati’s starting rotation before the 2017 All-Star break, and in 2019 (just his second full major league season), Castillo became an All-Star himself.
The only way that Castillo would match up with his former team in 2020 is if both qualify for the postseason. Unfortunately, that’s a far more realistic goal for the Reds—who have constructed a balanced team around their pre-arbitration-eligible ace—than it is for the Marlins, still rebuilding from the wreckage that Samson and Jeffrey Loria left behind.