Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Marlin or the Trout

In the 2010 movie The Social Network, Sean Parker proclaims some sage advice on the future of Facebook.   He said, in the words of Aaron Sorkin's award winning script, "When you go fishing you can catch a lot of fish, or you can catch a big fish. You ever walk into a guy's den and see a picture of him standing next to fourteen trout?" Apart from the obvious aquamarine references, this vignette perfectly depicts the current mindset of the Miami Marlins.  

Last night, while watching MLB Network's coverage of the two latest major trades, Ken Rosenthal claimed that the Marlins are looking to sell a number of their talented players in order to build a core if different and younger players.  The Marlins hopes for making the playoffs continue to dwindle as they find themselves 10 games back of the Washington Nationals in the National League East and 7.5 games back in the wild card hunt.  The Marlins, like every team want to catch the big fish, a world series trophy.  This franchise knows how to accomplish this goal, as the have won the same number of world series in the 19 years of the franchise has existed, as the Philadelphia Phillies have won in their 122 years of existence.  

In the past, the Marlins have built a winning team by cultivating young, talented, and most importantly, cheap players through the draft and trades.  They bring these youngster up to the Major Leagues, allowing them to "get their feet (or fins) wet" and gain some experience.  Then, as if struck by lightning, management decides that "this year" is the year to win.  Next, the front office makes a few brilliant and strategic trades to bring in some veteran players to fill the gaps.  Between the young talent and experienced veterans, the Marlins manage to win the wild card, and bing, bang, boom they win the World Series.  This series of events has already occurred twice in less than 20 years, and still the Marlins find it difficult to fill their stadium on a nightly basis.  Oh, and don't forget that after winning the World Series, Marlins management proceeds to trade off all of their talent in order to, once again, plant their farm system with seeds of young prospects.

After years of radio silence in the off season free-agent market, the Marlins finally made a splash.  An organization notorious for never spending a dime, put it's money to good use by snatching up free-agent shortstop Jose Reyes, righty closer Heath Bell, and lefty Mark Buehrle (whose last name I would continuously mispel if not for spell check).  These additions, and a beautiful new retractable roof stadium, were supposed to attract hoards of fans to come roaring through the ticket gates and bring in much needed revenue.  The fish even made a trade for veteran Carlos Lee in the hopes he could help them to the promised land, but El Caballo could not right this forlorn team.  Unfortunately, possibly by not sticking to the old yet proven method of winning, the Marlins find themselves below .500, and barely clinging to the hope that they will turn it around.  

In lieu of this disappointing season, the Marlins seem to be taking, not the road less traveled nor the road most frequented, but a middle path.  A number of, still young, and highly talented players remain on the Marlins squad.  Many of these players came up through their farm system or were traded to Miami just as their Major League careers began.  Yesterday, the Marlins traded right-handed pitcher Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante to the Detroit Tigers for a package of prospects including coveted righty Jacob Turner.  This move, in addition to rumors currently swirling, show that the Marlins are not shopping for veteran talent to complement young stars, but instead searching for young talent to partner with their newly acquired veteran free-agents.  

Anibal Sanchez, Hanely Ramirez, Josh Johnson, and Ricky Nolasco are all considered prize assets on the open market, and it seems as though the Marlins are willing to sell.  If the combination of Sanchez and Omar Infante could fetch a package deal including Jacob Turner and Rob Brantly, I can only imagine what the Marlins could get by dangling Ramirez and Johnson as bait.  Nolasco is an interesting prize as well, due to his consistency and proven ability to keep right handed batters from reaching base (.296 OBP against vs righties in his career).  Nolasco is under club control for 2013, which means any team trading for him would be trading for at least a year and a half of service, a more valuable commodity than a half-year rental.   

It isn't often we see underachieving, yet talented, teams such as the 2012 Marlins looking to trade some of their better assets in order to put together a team that could win over a longer stretch of time.  Usually such teams put all of their efforts into righting the ship by buying and not selling at the deadline.  Teams like the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, and St. Louis Cardinals fall into that category in 2012, but those three squads have been linked to buying, not selling.  I commend the Marlins for their strategy, although it must be easier to pursue such a game plan when the team only ranks 18th in attendance after building a totally new stadium (See http://espn.go.com/mlb/attendance for more information)  

Nolasco is a nice trade piece, as is Heath Bell, and the talented yet enigmatic Hanley Ramirez, but the true prize is Josh Johnson.  Johnson has a year left on his current contract, and despite recent injuries and struggles, has bounced back this season.  Baseball Prospectus predicts he will finish the year with a 2.8 WARP.  More importantly, according to BP's 10 year predictor metrics, the team that possesses Johnson can expect a >3.0 WARP pitcher through the 2018 season.  His upside is undeniable and with Rangers, Angels, and Red Sox scouts reported to be at his most recent strong start, there exists proof to back up the rumors that the Marlins will trade him by the July 31st trade deadline.  

With a wealth of abundant talent on their current MLB squad, the Marlins can expect the equivalent of stock options in return for the rare jewels in their tank.  These prospects may not become the players the Marlins hope them to be, but some of them will be the fish of the future, a future the Marlins hope will be bright and full of wins.  So, does this spectacle deserve the name fire sale, or is it merely a mirage?  Hanley Ramirez, although a stellar talent, has had attitude problems, and while Josh Johnson has extreme talent, he has been oft injured.  The Marlins have twice outsmarted every other Major League team by sneaking into the playoffs and winning the World Series as a franchise sans money.  Is this the beginning of another shadowy run at a title?  Maybe not this season, but I wouldn't say 2014 is out of the question.  

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