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July 28, 2010

Checking the Numbers

Deadline Confusion

by Eric Seidman

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The 2010 Florida Marlins are who we thought they were. While their upper brass may have had pipe dreams about a potential contender during the spring, a more likely scenario had the Fish finishing the year as close friends of the .500 mark. Entering play Wednesday, only a recent streak of hot play has them hovering around .500. This streaky play exemplifies their status as a team with several solid pieces but with a decent number of faults as well. Perhaps these characteristics were all put on display last weekend when they blew a 5-2 lead in the eighth inning to the Braves thanks to poor defense and below-average pitching. The Marlins may boast star power in the forms of Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson, but neither their hitting nor pitching in the aggregate has intimidated opponents—they rank 15th in the NL in WXRL, 13th in OBP, 12th in SLG, and 13th in Defensive Efficiency.

In spite of these faults, the Marlins are going to play a fairly sizeable role in the circus known as the trading deadline that will come at 4 p.m. Saturday as they employ a few players sought after by contending teams. And with just about half of the sport still in contention, some of these players may be given the chance to make a difference in the playoff picture. The question I have been pondering recently, however, is whether or not any of the supposed players will be dealt. On top of that, if one or more of Dan Uggla, Cody Ross, or Jorge Cantu were to be traded, are they even capable of hoisting a team to a higher spot in the standings?

Everything started back in spring training, when the hot topic featured Uggla, the power-hitting second baseman with the .257/.344/.482 slash line from 2006-09. Uggla, who is eligible for free agency following the 2011 season, signed a $7.8 million contract prior to the current season, and with another year of arbitration eligibility it stands to reason that his salary will enter the realm of double-figures next year. Given how “fiscally responsible” (cough, cheap, cough) the Marlins’ ownership has been throughout its existence, it isn’t exactly a reach to suggest that the team would have to be completely sold on Uggla’s exploits to pay that hefty of a stipend.

Therefore, it made sense to "rumorize"—my goal is to invent a new word each week—about Uggla being traded, as he can certainly offer offensive value. Though second base has transformed from a utility-esque position into one with more power, few have been as consistent as Uggla over the last few years. Then again, he isn’t the best baserunner in the world, and as the 2008 All-Star Game showed, he is in no way a solid fielder, either. What we are left with is a decent, but flawed, player making a good amount of money—in other words, the type of player for whom teams do not rush to surrender prospects. Unfortunately, this is symptomatic of the other players the Marlins are rumored to have on the trading block.

In addition to Uggla, players like Ross and Cantu have value attached to their names but which is limited when teams conjure up the hypothetical deals. On one hand, is Cantu really worth the remainder of his $6 million salary if he is a free agent at the end of the year, a butcher at third base, and mired in the midst of a poor .260/.308/.410 showing? And if so, what type of return would the Marlins expect? Surely, they can’t be expecting an impact prospect for two months of a league-average bat and below-average fielder. If Cantu was truly worth the impact prospect, it’s more likely that the Marlins would be closer to buying than selling at the deadline.

Ross makes $4.45 million this year and, like Uggla, is arbitration-eligible for one more season before being able to test the free-agent waters. Like Cantu, he has been playing below his established level of talent, with a measly .273/.329/.402 line and just eight home runs. And while teams can physically place him in center field and not bear witness to a fielding abomination, he is not exactly on everyone’s up-the-middle wish list come holiday time. Once again, we have a player who has been much better in the past at the skill that keeps him employed, but who is costly relative to the production, or lack thereof, and is unlikely to extract anything remotely noteworthy in return, especially when you consider that acquiring teams would relegate him to a platoon and part-time role.

Teams like the Phillies and Giants aren’t growing giddy over the possibility of paying $2.5 million over the next two months and surrendering much in the prospect department to get a bench player who doubles as a potential non-tender candidate at the end of the season. Sure, these teams are looking into the likes of Jose Guillen and Miguel Tejada, but for a move to make sense for the Marlins, they would need to get something significant in return. It isn’t like the savings on Ross or Cantu would help them make a corresponding move this season to enhance their post-season probability. Then again, their names have been linked to a bevy of teams, and even if the players were relegated to part-time duty, wouldn’t you feel a bit more comfortable in a tight spot with Ross pinch-hitting instead of Wilson Valdez?

Put together, one has to wonder whether or not trades of Cantu and Ross would more closely mirror exercises in transactional policy than ways to legitimately improve the team. What muddies the proverbial waters is how the Marlins seem to be changing their minds each and every day. A hot streak will do that to a team and front office, but in the period of time when I began brainstorming this article and when I started typing the piece itself, the following happened:

  1. Uggla went from potential trade candidate to potential long-term extendee
  2. Cantu went from being basically a sure-thing to go to the Rangers to being sought after by a couple of teams, with nothing imminent.
  3. Ross, thanks to one of those common pie-to-the-face injuries to Chris Coghlan, went from being an expendable piece in the outfield to almost irreplaceable.

OK, I may have exaggerated a bit in the numerical list above, but that does not mean the Marlins haven’t flip-flopped about their personnel lately. The idea that an injury to Coghlan drastically changes the landscape of potential Ross deals tells me one of two things—either the Marlins know they aren’t going to get much in return for Ross and would rather just play him, or the team legitimately thinks it has what it takes to win the NL wild card, and without Coghlan, Ross is needed to keep the team as close to full-throttle as possible.

But then their rumored actions and decisions with Cantu seem to contradict these positions, as removing him from the lineup for a possibly nondescript return would go against both of the aforementioned possibilities. Sure, prospect Logan Morrison could immediately step in, but that seems to be a risky proposition to a team that might think it can make the playoffs. Unlike their division-rival Phillies, who have been flirting with the possibility of shipping Jayson Werth for a nice return and installing Domonic Brown in right field, the Marlins aren’t going to get anything near a Werth-esque return for Cantu, so this isn’t a situation where two birds—improving minor-league depth and removing that which roadblocks a top prospect—can be killed with one stone.

A comparable trade would be the one that sent Ryan Garko from the Indians to the Giants last year in exchange for pitching prospect Scott Barnes. From 2006-08, Garko hit .283/.353/.448, showing pop and some patience, without setting the world on fire defensively. He was also arbitration-eligible and a potential non-tender candidate. The Indians were able to extract Barnes from the cold, veteran hands of Brian Sabean, and while the lefty may not amount to anything more than another Jeremy Sowers, this represents the type of return the Marlins should be expecting from their suitors or the type of return on which they can gauge whether or not to even make a deal.

What would a potential trade look like, though? Or what should the Marlins be expecting? Plugging Matt Swartz’s MORP values, WARP3 numbers, and data from the current year as well as next, courtesy of PECOTA, into a trade value calculator suggests that Ross is worth about $9.3 million in trade value. That $9.3 million, per research done by Victor Wang, would roughly be equivalent to a Grade-B pitching prospect, indicating that the Garko-Barnes example isn’t too far off. Cantu is another story, however, as he is calculated to be worth approximately $3.6 million in trade value, which could net either a low-end Grade-B hitting prospect, or a Grade-C pitching prospect age 22 years or less. Keep in mind that these numbers could change due to the investment value inherent with both Marlins players, as their value is likely to be defined by the bidders desiring their services. Ross and Cantu may not be worth much sans-context, but in the interests of playoff odds, an extra 100 or so plate appearances above a replacement-level player could conceivably make a difference.

What it seems to boil down to is that the Marlins are not sure where they stand right now, as a hot streak puts them right back into the thick of things. They are probably asking themselves "Who is to say that another hot streak isn’t on its way, capable of catapulting us to the top of the scrap heap?" But then their consciences kick in, and they realize how poorly they rank in several meaningful categories and how it might not be prudent to pull a Bavasi and misread the situation, acquiring “the missing piece” only to find out four other pieces are missing as well. To that end, they might try and satisfy both possibilities by attempting to figure out how to stay in contention this year while simultaneously building for a brighter tomorrow. Only, the chips that could extract a decent return are now being viewed as part of the next winner.

 Ross and Cantu may be traded by the end of the week, but color me skeptical that either will make a significant impact or that the Marlins will receive anything significant in return. A trade may take place, but it will likely be one that elicits more “meh” reactions than approvals from both sides. It doesn’t make sense for the Marlins to continue to pay $5-8 million each for the services of Ross and Cantu, but it doesn’t make sense to simply give the players away. Then again, if their asking price isn’t lower than they would like, nobody will come knocking. What’s left is one of those age-old quandaries of what to do, as both players are sort of stuck in value purgatory, being capable of helping a new team, but with neither that hypothetical new team nor the current employer being all too wild about making a move. 

 

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

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