Writer's Note: For a less objective, more subjective analysis of this trade, please check out this article.
Last night, the Miami Marlins and Toronto Blue Jays made a true blockbuster trade, one of those franchise-changing deals for both teams. While Twitter was overflowing with disgust for the Marlins and praise for Alex Anthopolous and the Jays, I was busy combing top prospect lists and trying to find a way in which this deal made sense for the Marlins.
After my searching, I've found a lot of data that points to this deal being a move to dump salary, given the high salaries of players going out, and the slightly underwhelming return coming back in. Nevertheless, there are more than a few positive points about this deal for the Marlins, and we'll examine them going forward. But make no mistake, the Fish are going to be tough to watch in 2013.
As of right now, the trade appears to be: Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio, John Buck and $4 million heading to Toronto, in exchange for (deep breath) Yunel Escobar, Adeiny Hechevarria, Henderson Alvarez, Jeff Mathis, Justin Nicolino, Jake Marisnick, and Anthony DeSclafani.
First, let's talk about the outgoing assets. And hey, let's totally ignore the $4 million dollars, because the Marlins management is dropping so very much payroll in this deal.
Jose Reyes is, as you know by now, a very good shortstop. He still has five years and $96 million left on his contract. While Reyes was an MVP-caliber player in 2011 for the Mets, he was merely very good for the Marlins in 2012. His triple-slash line was .287/.347/.433, which put him very close to his career averages. When combined with average-ish defense at short and solid value on the basepaths, that makes him a very valuable shortstop, probably still one of the five best in the bigs. Note that Reyes's free agent contract was heavily backloaded (according to Cot's Contracts), so this isn't necessarily a very team-friendly contract. The Marlins got very good performance out of Reyes for a year, given that they only paid him $10 million in 2012.
Mark Buehrle is a better-than-average starting pitcher, known for his consistency, defense, and difficult-to-spell last name. In 2012, he had a usual season for him: 3.74 ERA, 4.18 FIP, but gave up a few more home runs and a few fewer ground balls than usual. He did, however, bump up his strikeout rate, and the jump in HR% can be attributed to an increased HR/FB rate. Buehrle actually can probably be projected to perform at his usual rate going forward. Like Reyes, Buehrle had a heavily-backloaded contract. He's got three years and $52 million dollars left on his deal, so again, the Marlins got a good return on a $6 million investment.
I've advocated in the past that the Marlins should trade Josh Johnson for a good offensive prospect. While the Marlins sort of did that here, Johnson's still a valuable starting pitcher. In 2012, after recovering from an injury-plagued 2011 campaign, he rebounded with a solid performance. Granted, it wasn't up to the standard of his All-Star seasons in 2009 and 2010, but it was very good: 20.7% strikeout rate, 3.84 ERA and 3.40 FIP. Johnson's got one year left on his contract, and is due about $13.75 million.
Emilio Bonifacio is a cheap, versatile speedster whose value is tied entirely to his wheels and his flexibility. The secret about Bonifacio is that he is not a very good hitter at all. 2011 was an exception, as Bonifacio's huge batting average on balls in play (partially luck-driven) of .372 carried him along to a solid .360 OBP. In truth, Bonifacio's got a career OBP of .329, and one in .330 in 2012. He has absolutely no power (.343 SLG over his career), and needs to be exceptional with glove and cleats to be better than replacement-level.
John Buck is a starting catcher who's starting not to play like much of a starter any more. He hit at about 25% below league-average in 2012, and provides all of his value in power and the ability to draw a walk. He doesn't hit for average, and he's not much of a receiver behind the plate. Given that he hasn't been improving as a hitter, and is on the wrong side of 30 years old, he's not much of an asset.
Looking at this group going out, it becomes painfully clear that the team sacrificed current performance in order to get out from the heavily-backloaded contracts of Reyes and Buehrle. Unfortunately for Marlins fans, that meant giving up three of the team's four best players, and two somewhat useful pieces. No matter what the return, one would have to imagine that it would be hard to replace the production of two strong starters and an All-Star shortstop.
The Marlins brought back two kinds of players in this deal: major leaguers and minor-league prospects. We'll tackle the major leaguers before reviewing the kids.
Yunel Escobar has been a fairly good shortstop in his time with the Braves and Blue Jays, consistently providing solid defense and a solid bat for the position. Unfortunately, last year was his worst in the bigs, managing just a .300 OBP and watching his walk rate get sawed nearly in half, down to 5.8% from his 2011 number of 10.3%. To make matters worse, Escobar also was involved in a controversy surrounding his use of a slur on his eyeblack during a game. Beyond that, he's a fairly-consistent solid major-league starter, but he looks like he may be declining. And the Marlins can't expect him to provide as much value as a Jose Reyes, even though he'll cost much, much less ($5 million with two equal club options for 2014 and 2015).
Henderson Alvarez was one of the most consistent pitchers for the Blue Jays last season: he didn't get injured and made 31 starts for the team. Unfortunately, he was consistently kind of terrible. Alvarez's 9.8% strikeout rate was easily the worst among qualified starters in the majors, and he gave up too many home runs as well. His 4.85 ERA on the season is actually a little deceiving, as a 5.18 FIP tells the story that his underlying peripheral numbers actually were worse than his "real" performance. There's no doubt Alvarez will benefit from a move to the NL and the spacious Marlins Park, but he's still probably not more than a #4-#5 starter at his best. If he can bring his strikeout rate back up, perhaps he could develop into more, but for now, he's just a cheap, young back-of-the-rotation starter.
Jeff Mathis ... man, the less said about Jeff Mathis, the better. For years in Anaheim, Jeff Mathis was the poster boy for the argument for statistical analysis. Considered an excellent defensive catcher, Mathis has always found a job in the bigs due to a sterling reputation, which hides the fact that he is consistently one of the worst hitters in the major leagues. In 2010 and 2011, Mathis's bat was SO bad, that his batting line was about 70% worse than league average. Now, 2012 was a bit of a different story, as a power surge led him to be, shockingly, a productive part-time player. But don't be fooled. Mathis is moving from a homer-happy park to a larger one, and he has no real track record of even league-average hitting performance. He's, at best, a all-field no-hit backup catcher, and at worst, a real drain on a team's lineup.
Adeiny Hechevarria sits on the line between prospects and major leaguers, due to the fact that he finally made his major league debut in 2012, and handled himself without embarassment. A fielding-first shortstop, Hechevarria also has the ability to play second and third base as well. He'll likely have a long career, simply due to the fact that his defense is plus or better at the toughest defensive position on the diamond (well, other than catcher). The problem is, Hechevarria isn't much of a hitter at all. He doesn't have home run power, and has a very real problem with the strike zone, walking in only 3% of his major league plate appearances last season. If he's able to adjust his approach to be more selective, or can find a way to increase his power, he could eventually become a league-average hitter like, say, Yunel Escobar. But I don't see that as likely. More likely is that he'll be a classic glove-first, no-hit shortstop along the lines of a Brendan Ryan of the Mariners or Brandon Crawford of the Giants. Maybe "Adeiny" means "Brandon" in Spanish?
The real prizes of this deal for the Marlins are the prospects. Jake Marisnick is an outfield prospect with a load of potential, but still a long way to go with the bat. Capable enough to play center field, Marisnick has all the physical tools to succeed: speed, strength, and good instincts. The biggest problem, right now, is that his bat isn't developing very quickly. Despite the Jays tinkering with his swing this season, he hasn't yet translated his power potential into power production. He could be a regular player even without the bat developing to its full potential, but if the bat comes, he could be a star in center field for the Marlins by 2015.
The Jays' minor league system is full of live arms and pitching prospects, and Justin Nicolino was one of the better ones. While Nicolino doesn't have the raw stuff of some of the Jays' other pitching prospects, he has a 90+ mph fastball, and from a left-handed pitcher, that's not too shabby. Best of all, Nicolino already has very good command and control over his fastball, giving him the ceiling of a middle-of-the-rotation starter, even without dynamite stuff. Depending on how fast the Marlins want to move him, he'll probably spend most of the season in High-A or Double-A, and could see Marlins Park by the end of 2014.
The final piece of the puzzle is Tony DeSclafini, a former University of Florida pitcher who doesn't rate on most top-10 prospect lists in the Jays system. He's got a live fastball and the potential for decent secondary offerings, but it's still not clear whether he'll be a starter or reliever long-term. Anything but a sure thing, DeSclafini should see the lower minors again in 2013, and looks more like a lottery ticket than a sure thing at this stage.
Wrapping It Up
In the end, despite acquiring two solid prospects and a big-league
bigot shortstop in Yunel Escobar, this deal ultimately comes down to money for the Marlins. Marisnick and Nicolino are good prospects that could be part of a good team in the future, but with players like Reyes, Buehrle and Johnson going out, I might have expected a bigger, better prospect (like Aaron Sanchez or even Travis D'Arnaud) to come back to the Marlins in return. It's unlikely that the Marlins gained a superstar in this deal, so the trade must have been about shedding the backloaded contracts offered to Buehrle and Reyes.
In a normal world, a team would use the cost savings freed up to make smart, targeted acquisitions of major-league talent to now round out the franchise. The Marlins, who have cut their payroll by about 300% from 2012, could theoretically do this and add a boatload of free agents or trade for (new) bloated contracts. But in the meantime, this is a team that should be AWFUL in 2013. And despite some promising young talents (like Marisnick, Nicolino and Christian Yelich), they probably won't be very good in 2014 or 2015 either. It's hard to see that this trade is representative of any plan other than "save lots of money," but the team certainly has undone the wild spending of the 2012 offseason. It's possible the team could be better for it in the long run, but we'll have to see what other moves are made going forward to see if the Marlins are really interested in fielding a competitive baseball team.