The 17th installment of Joe Sheehan's excellent newsletter appeared in my inbox last night (drop Joe some email if you're interested in subscribing), and it featured analysis of the big, weird Rockies-Marlins-Braves deal that was hinted at last week and finally agreed upon–pending approval from the commissioner's office–this weekend. In analyzing the deal, Joe puts the Rockies in the winner's column and gives the Marlins a goose egg. Here's an excerpt from the Marlins section:
Add in Tim Spooneybarger, who becomes the Marlins' 13th candidate for closer, and the $47.6 million they save from 2003 through 2005, and the trade actually looks pretty good.
Well, it does until you get to the point where the Marlins pay Mike Hampton $38 million to pitch for someone else from 2006-2008. That's an average of $12.7 million a year, or more than the Marlins have ever paid anyone who actually was playing for them.
(The actual terms of the trades remain somewhat of a mystery, and I've seen several different structures quoted. We'll run with this for now.)
There's a problem here, but it isn't what Joe mentions above. It's important to remember that baseball is the sport of the guaranteed contract, and the Marlins owed far more money than they will pay Mike Hampton to not pitch for them before they made this deal; they just owed it to other players. The problem for the Marlins is one they had prior to this trade: the contracts of Charles Johnson and Preston Wilson were irresponsible, financially onerous, bulletproof obligations on the Marlins' part. Because of this, nobody was beating down their doors to trade for these guys. In today's MLB, there isn't a Get Out Of Jail Free card (unless you're dealing with the Yankees). If you sign someone to a dumb contract, it looks like you're going to have to ride it out or help someone else pay it off to get out from under it.
With that in mind, let's take a closer look at the deal. Assuming the Marlins owe the Braves $12.7 million per year from 2006-2008, that's about $31.4 million in present value. For that new obligation, the Marlins make about $43.2 million in previous obligations disappear. Again, because the obligations are guaranteed, it makes no real difference which year the Marlins decide these debits belong in.
The Marlins also move Johnson (who looks like he's had his last good year) and make room for Ramon Castro, which should pay dividends quickly. They eat a downgrade in CF, where Juan Pierre is not an equivalent player to Wilson–though as Joe notes, he's younger than Wilson and probably not as bad as he looked last year. They add Spooneybarger, who immediately becomes the best pitcher in the bullpen, and a middling Braves prospect to be named later.
Overall, the Marlins won't miss any of the players they sent to the Rockies. That's what separates this trade from the idiotic rumors of a Larry Walker to Arizona for Matt Williams, Erubiel Durazo, and friends deal–Walker is one of the game's best hitters, shows no sign of a dropoff, and is arguably worth his salary. Trading him for a bunch of garbage–well compensated garbage in Matty D.'s case–and a good hitter who plays a position the Rox have locked up is cutting off your nose to spite your face. The point of the game is not to deal the guys making the most money–it's to deal the guys with the contracts most out of line with what they're actually worth. The Marlins aren't trading any essential components here.
Big picture time: if I offered you Pierre, Spooneybarger, Random Braves Prospect, and $12 million for Wilson, would you do it? That's a deal I make happily–if for no other reason than if I feel like spending my savings, I can get better value for my dollar in today's market than I could when Wilson, Johnson, and Hampton were all signed in the first place.
The main problem I see with this deal is that the Marlins didn't make the inclusion of Eric Owens a deal-breaker. A lineup with Pierre, Luis Castillo, and Owens at a corner has 250 written all over it–they'll be a threat to steal 250 bases, with Jeff Torborg's propensity for little ball they'll have their sights set on 250 sac bunts, and if everything breaks their way they'll reach 250 runs scored. Yeesh.
The problem the Marlins had was one they created years ago when they signed Wilson and Johnson to bloated contracts in the first place, and they've dealt with it about as well as could be expected. The problem with their solution is that Jeffrey Loria will likely pocket the savings, happily cry poor about paying Hampton until 2008 in very similar tones to Joe's above, and pull the purse strings in Miami even tighter – but that's another issue entirely.