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Reportedly signed Wei-Yin Chen to a five-year, $80 million contract with an opt-out after year two and a vesting player option [1/12]
The Marlins may be a horrible team to root for, but at least you can say this about them: there’s never a dull moment in the rumor rags. After alienating their new coaching staff by threatening to deal Marcell Ozuna, non-tendering their 2015 Opening Day starter, and hiring Barry Bonds for a job he probably doesn’t want to do, the Fish opened up the coffers to acquire something every stagnant third- or fourth-place team needs: a long-term commitment to a No. 3 or No. 4 starter.
Chen has quietly (by nature of pitching in Baltimore) established himself as a reliable lefty starter capable of throwing 180 or so somnolent innings per season. He’s managed 6.1 WARP over the last four seasons, which averages out to about a win and a half–certainly an acceptable showing for any young-ish pitcher. And the way he goes about it is encouraging, but just not in an upside way.
Chen’s game is simple: work his fastball all over the place while limiting walks, keep hitters off-balance by mixing in several offerings, and pray that the lineup he’s facing doesn’t have too many right-handed hitters in it. His fastball is certainly his best pitch, as his control is pretty great (he has kept his walk rate below 5.5 percent in each of the past two seasons) and has faintly above-average velo. He plays off that with a sinker, slider, curve, and split, but only his slider had a whiff rate higher than seven percent last season. In so many words, he’s reliable and doesn’t seem subject to dramatic velocity swings.
On the other hand (literally), right-handed hitters are a bit problem … which isn’t too surprising given his lack of dominant breaking and off-speed offerings. Opposing hitters on the left side have posted a .281 OBP and a .372 slugging percentage against Chen over his career, but righties have hammered him for a .315 OBP and a .457 slugging. The Orioles have even tried to avoid using him against lineups like the 2015 Blue Jays, which featured a host of dangerous right-handed hitters.
Beyond that, homers of any kind can be an issue for Chen. He’s always given up more than a homer per nine, but here’s an area where Marlins Park might be a real blessing. According to commonly-used park factors, the Orioles’ home park elicited 10 percent more dingers than league average, where Miami is likely to suppress them at a rate close to 10 percent lower than the league average. So there’s certainly some upside provided that Miami’s fences stay the same distance from the plate. Oops.
There’s no reason any team with a hole in the rotation wouldn’t want Chen … but for the Marlins, barely hanging onto the fringes of contention, this appears to be an odd move at first glance. Sure, their rotation has two or three very open spaces–no one is begging for more Tom Koehler– but the Marlins and Jeffrey Loria are a frugality punchline, always signing big deals but then trying to escape them soon after. Why should this be any different if the team continues to struggle on the field?
Like the Giancarlo Stanton contract, the Marlins are doing something really interesting (and dare I say self-aware) here: they’re kind of betting against themselves. Think about it–if Chen is super-successful over the next two years, then the Marlins get him at a low rate for two seasons, after which he opts out. That’s a win for both sides. If Chen gets injured or is truly awful over the next couple of seasons, that’s the bad case for the Marlins: they’re stuck on the hook for the whole $80 million.
But if Chen–who has been very predictable in his four MLB seasons–just pitches like himself for the next couple of seasons, then what happens? In that case, the Marlins get two years of him at a slightly below-market rate, but then Chen gets the option to try and find a new contract for his age-32 season and beyond. My guess is that even with $52 million or so on the table, Chen would be likely to give it up to play for a team that is not the Marlins, as he could probably recoup the remainder of his contract value, if perhaps over more years. He’d also get the bonus of not playing for a franchise that most players tire of pretty quickly. Ultimately, it’s possible Chen would stick with the Marlins if they were a contending team, or his skills were in dramatic decline, but it’s a pretty fair bet that neither of those things will be happening post-2017. So out he goes.
In some ways the Marlins appear to be guessing that this is the case, and if they are betting on the opt out, then this looks like a very nice short-term acquisition. After all, there’s an argument to be made that Mike Leake is a younger, better pitcher than Chen, but both players are getting similar guarantees.
Signing Wei-Yin Chen to any contract is a bet on his consistency. However, the Marlins are offering more money and the opt out in a way that’s tinged with faith in their own consistency. It’s tough to imagine that Jeffrey Loria–who loves the idea signing a big-deal free agent, but hates keeping them around for the long haul–actually wants the Taiwanese starter around for another half-decade. No, this contract implies that Loria will do what he does best: squeeze as much performance as he can out of an asset before quickly tossing it aside.
In some ways, Chen is a very strange deal for the Marlins, but in others it’s very understandable. If nothing changes, this will just be another stop on Chen’s tour of the country, and he’ll take his fastball and move onto another team in two seasons’ time. It would take a worst-case scenario for this deal to come back and bite the Marlins. Well, I guess that means we shouldn’t rule that option out. —Bryan Grosnick
I’ll allow those of you already employing Chen’s services in keeper leagues to settle back into your seat before I begin, as you’ve no doubt been skipping around the room after reading the above analysis…okay then. So, there’s very little other than good news here for Chen’s fantasy value. His profile as a decidedly fly ball-oriented pitcher is pretty clearly established at this point, and he has allowed a moderate split in favor of opposite-handed hitters over the course of his career. The most jarring component on that split has involved the long ball, with righties mashing him to the tune of a homerun rate of 1.35-per-nine—well north of league-average. With this new contract in hand, Chen migrates from the fourth-best park in baseball for right-handed power (per our park factors) to the third-most difficult place for righties to leave the yard. The league switch, in particular his exodus from the A.L. East, is a dynamo. The Marlins offense last year was better without Giancarlo Stanton for half the year than Baltimore’s was with Chris Davis for the entirety of it. The only real check in the negative column is a pretty gargantuan gap in the caliber of primary receiver he’ll be working with, as the downgrade from Caleb Joseph to J.T. Realmuto is, at least according to our shiny new catching metrics, roughly the size of the right-center field alley at Marlins Park. But even that risk is mitigated some by Chen’s elite command profile, and overwhelmingly the positives outweigh the negatives for his projected value in 2016. He has finished exactly 61st in standard mixed league pitcher earnings in each of the past two seasons, and should be valued as a strong SP4 in shallow (12-team) leagues and a modest SP3 in deeper formats. —Wilson Karaman