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Checking in on the original Starling Marte trade

The players who the Marlins sent to the Diamondbacks to acquire Marte haven’t amounted to anything.

Starling Marte #6 of the Miami Marlins looks on prior to the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

August 31, 2020 is on the short list of most exciting days of the Bruce Sherman Marlins era. It was trade deadline day of the COVID-shortened MLB season. In the midst of rallying to beat Jacob deGrom and the Mets to propel themselves to the .500 mark, the Marlins completed a deal to replace their center field carousel with excellent veteran Starling Marte.

Making that kind of investment to win now was exciting on its own. What made it even better was the seemingly light price tag. The Marlins sent pitchers Caleb Smith, Humberto Mejía and Julio Frías to the Diamondbacks (Frías was a “player to be named later” at the time).

Mejía is in the news this week because the D-backs just cut him. He flopped during a brief starting rotation audition in 2021 (7.25 ERA, 5.50 FIP, 22.1 IP in 5 GS) and wasn’t much better in the upper minors. The Panamanian right-hander is still only 25 years old, so there will be other opportunities for him to fulfill his potential—it just won’t happen in Arizona.

Smith never recaptured the command that had him on an All-Star trajectory in early 2019. His walk rate since the trade has been 50% worse than league average, according to FanGraphs. The D-backs are trying to salvage his career out of the bullpen, but he is trending toward being a non-tender candidate next winter...if he even completes the season on their roster.

Overall in 61 appearances (17 starts), the bearded lefty has posted a 4.84 ERA and 5.45 FIP. Roughly replacement level. Still eminently prone to allowing tape-measure home runs.

Expectations were modest for Frías to begin with, but yikes. In two seasons with High-A Hillsboro, he has dispensed 30 walks, 10 wild pitches and five hit by pitches in 26 innings. Not even fit for MiLB middle relief. The left-hander will turn 24 next week.

As it turns out, the only significant cost associated with the Starling Marte acquisition was his salary. The Marlins paid him for the final month of the 2020 campaign and for all of 2021 ($14-plus million in total), and it was a great value.

Marte was easily the most impactful all-around player on the Marlins during his brief tenure (September 2020 through July 2021). He was above average at practically everything except for over-the-fence power and he did it at a premium defensive position.

There was mutual interest in a contract extension, as Craig Mish reported on extensively for the Miami Herald, but the sticking point was the length of the deal. Marte sought a guarantee through his age-36 season. The final offer from the Marlins covered three years—through age 35—with less than $40 million guaranteed, per Mish.

Unable to bridge their gap, the Fish flipped Marte to the Athletics at the trade deadline for Jesús Luzardo. He produced well for them down the stretch and drew widespread interest from teams in free agency, including the Marlins. The Mets won the bidding war with a whopping four-year, $78 million deal.

This is not a complicated “what if.” The Marlins had an opportunity to lock up Marte through 2025, solving their center field dilemma at least for the current season before likely transitioning to the corner spots. We may never know his precise asking price, but the average annual value would’ve been considerably less than the $19.5 million he ultimately received on the open market. And it would’ve cemented the trade as one of the best in Marlins history.

Instead, he’s on the team that is running away with the National League East division. Through 37 games played entering Wednesday, Marte is slashing .277/.315/.415 for a 114 wRC+ with six stolen bases. The Mets use him in right field.

Marte might never again replicate his 2021 season performance—that was buoyed by newfound patience at the plate. Early indications are that he has reverted to his old, aggressive ways and his on-base percentage is suffering because of it. However, he is still a superior player to Jesús Sánchez, Avisaíl García and Jorge Soler, at least one of whom wouldn’t be on the Marlins roster if Marte had stayed.

Unequivocal losers of the Marte saga, at least the Diamondbacks beat the Marlins in five of six matchups this season to soften the blow. They find themselves with a winning record as of this writing. Their top prospect, Alek Thomas, has emerged as a starting-caliber center fielder. The Marlins could use one of those.