Giancarlo Stanton Trade Notions: How, Why and to Whom the Miami Marlins Should Trade Him Now
January 3, 2013 Leave a comment
Giancarlo Stanton remains under the thumb of Jeffrey Loria and the Miami Marlins for four more MLB seasons, if they choose to keep him. He has 93 home runs in two and a half big-league seasons, and he’s only 23 years old. I write in support of the motion that the Marlins should trade Stanton, and I mean now.
Defending the Premise
On Nov. 19, Bud Selig ratified the 12-player trade to which the Marlins and Toronto Blue Jays had agreed back on Nov. 13, a trade that made Canadians of Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle, among others, and that concretized Miami’s commitment to a demolition/reconstruction that began with dealing Hanley Ramirez back in July. The commissioner really had no choice in the matter, although he used the six-day pocket veto to flex his muscles and preen a bit. He wouldn’t have blocked it even if he could feasibly have done so, although he made a good show of it. Selig allowed the Boston Red Sox to do the same thing, give or take a massive public outcry, not 90 days previously, when they sent 35 percent of their prospective 2013 payroll commitments to the Los Angeles Dodgers. More importantly, he advocated the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the one that took full effect at the end of the 2012 season, the one that incentivized just this kind of binary decision-making: A team that can’t win its division in a given season now has every reason to cut the red wire and gather as much rubble as they can after the blast.
With the league’s consent, now, the Marlins have the way clear. They have traded, since late July, three of the four cornerstones of the Florida Marlins’ final years, Ramirez, Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez. They had traded Dan Uggla and Cameron Maybin as part of a previous abdication of competitiveness, and even flipped Omar Infante and Edward Mujica–the best pieces gained in return for those two–this summer. Miami has chosen its course. They have no chance to win in 2013, and virtually none in 2014. They could win as many as 160 games in those two seasons, but that would serve them poorly. They would do better to win 130, and be better prepared for 2015 and beyond.
I want to stop and explain that a bit, because it probably sounds cynical. Maybe it is. It’s true, though. The new CBA makes several provisions that encourage this kind of thinking. The new Wild Card system, which (theoretically, anyway) is designed to reward winning one’s division more sharply, necessarily devalues the two Wild Card teams, and therefore, decreases somewhat the marginal value of wins 83-88 for most teams. The changes in free-agent compensation rules mean a team can now sign a top-tier guy without losing a first-round draft pick only if they finish as one of the 10 worst teams in the league, not among the 15 worst, as it was under the old system. Those first-round picks are more valuable than ever, thanks to new, hard spending caps on that avenue of player acquisition, and the extra cash you get to spend with each pick you move up is stratified such that you really hamstring yourself by winning any meaningless game after falling from contention. The same is even truer of the international amateur market, wherein your overall budget each season depends wholly on your record in the previous one.
With all those factors in play, and with so many baseball fans better-versed than ever in prospects and the premium value of home-grown talent, and because this is baseball (not football or basketball, where being the worst team in the league means winning 15 percent of your games), the right choice is the hard choice. This system rewards choosing your battles, not trying to be the Yankees or Red Sox (as the Red Sox proved), and the Marlins have made their choice. They need to follow the path they have chosen to its logical end.
Stop, you said. Stanton is not Jose Reyes, nor Cameron Maybin. He’s a generational talent, and should be locked up on a 17-year deal, not traded away. Ideally, of course, you’re right. However, Stanton not only Tweeted his displeasure with the blockbuster when it happened, but expanded on his position in an interview two full days later. That he did not walk back his comments in the Peter Gammons piece, that no one either close to him or high up in the Miami organization got to him in those 48 hours, reveals a steeled will. Stanton is not going to sign that big deal, is what I’m saying. He isn’t buying what Loria and the front office are selling.
The time value of Giancarlo Stanton will never be higher. This is an absolute fact. Not only is his 2013 season the one in which teams can most reliably project his production, but it’s the last one he will play at a near-minimum salary. In 2014, Stanton becomes arbitration-eligible. The last player with similar bona fides to reach arbitration was Miguel Cabrera, in 2007, and Cabrera made $7.4 million in his first year or arbitration eligibility.
In economics, the Coase Theorem says that (absent undue transaction cost or other externalities) resources flow to their highest use. Stanton is a rich resource, overflowing with profit potential and absolute value, but lacking utility to the Marlins for the next two years, when his value is likely to be highest, relative to his pay. Miami should be able to trade Stanton for any number of packages, but they will never get better offers than if they make him available now.
Thorough Valuation of the Asset
If Stanton really is available, this is basically an auction now, with several teams bidding lots of baseball talent. Of course, a reserve price is in place, in that the Marlins are not going to let Stanton go for less than a king’s ransom. For the teams interested in grabbing Stanton, it’s important to know how much value Stanton really has, so they know when to stop bidding. The home runs and the age are sexy, but Stanton has a complicated profile. Let’s examine him more closely.
Before anything else, we need to ascertain the long-term risk Stanton’s body type and previous injury history pose to his prodigious potential. Stanton is a huge, hulking man. As David Price of the Rays recently revealed on Twitter, Tampa Bay players call Stanton “Create-a-player,” because his huge frame and athleticism seem like something from the architectural mind of an adolescent video-game player.
That’s great, but it’s also scary. Guys that big, strong and fast (Stanton is no burner, but he has good range and finds his stride quickly) get hurt more easily, simply because they put far more pressure on their joints and bones than the average player.
Stanton has run into this problem already, though he turned 23 after the 2012 season ended. Soreness in his lower back shut him down during the 2009 Arizona Fall League. A right quadriceps strain bothered him for four weeks during Spring Training in 2011, and he went on to miss a half-dozen games in September with a hamstring strain in the same leg.
In 2012, a sore left knee followed him through the final three weeks of Spring Training, and very slightly into the season. Then, in early July, his right knee flared up. Tests found loose bodies in the area, and he had surgery just before the All-Star break. He missed 25 games with that injury, then another nine in September when he strained his right oblique muscle.
Back, hamstring, knees, oblique. That’s an ugly quartet of injury areas for an oversized guy in his early 20s. He won’t necessarily struggle with these things for his entire career, and no single injury has been a huge and daunting one, but his value must be discounted somewhat on this basis.
Without forgetting that injuries could always affect how Stanton has played (and will play), and therefore how we perceive him on the field, let’s move on to what he does well (and poorly) when he is healthy.
The power, of course, is the lead story. Stanton has the best power of any active right-handed hitter, and probably of any active hitter, and maybe of any hitter since Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa retired. He not only socked 37 home runs in 70 percent of a season in 2012, but added 30 doubles and a triple. He led the league in slugging average, and was third in OPS. At his peak, he should be able to threaten 60 homers if he plays 160 games.
To what degree Stanton is also a good pure hitter, and will therefore be able to maximize the value of his power, is a fascinating and still-open question. He hit .290 with a .361 OBP in 2012, an improvement over 2011 (.262/.356), and over 2010 (.259/.326), which is certainly encouraging. On the other hand, the only reason for his improvement in those areas was a spike in his batting average on balls in play, to .344. That’s not outrageously unsustainable, but his prior established BABIP of .321 is a better, more conservative estimate of how he will do going forward. On other kinds of plays, Stanton’s performance slipped, as both his strikeout and walk rates regressed from their 2011 levels—although both were still better than in his half-season 2010 debut. I tend to think Stanton’s true-talent on-base skills will smooth out a .280-.285/.345-.350 line, and that’s plenty to make him a superstar. One need simply remember that he’s going to be a Juan Gonzalez or Sammy Sosa style asset, not Barry Bonds or Miguel Cabrera.
Giancarlo Stanton – Sample PA Breakdown
|Hits on BIP||18.2%|
|Outs on BIP||37.8%|
Fielding and running aren’t problems right now for Stanton, although I suspect they will be one day. Baseball Info Solutions had Stanton at 10 runs above average, according to Defensive Runs Saved, in 2012. You’re never again as good a defender as you are at 22, and that probably goes double for Stanton, but he has a good arm and good body control, so he won’t turn into a liability overnight—unless his knees really give out.
Another way to frame the exercise of projecting Stanton’s career path is to use historically comparable players as a guide. Baseball-Reference has done the baseball public a great service by co-opting Bill James’ Similarity Scores system and listing the 10 most similar players to any given player, through any given age. For Stanton, nine of the 10 comparables through age 22 are reasonably good fits and might be informative cases. I also added four names that seemed natural, if imperfect. Here are those players, along with their playing time and WAR used as approximations of health and ability, through several phases of their careers:
Giancarlo Stanton Comparables – Aging of Skill Profiles and Health
|Through Age 22||Ages 23-26||Ages 27-30||Ages 31-34||Age 35+|
|Player||Games lost/year||WAR/year||Games lost/year||WAR/year||Games lost/year||WAR/year||Games lost/year||WAR/year||Games lost/year||WAR/year|
*All games lost figures adjusted to account for midseason promotions, externalities like strikes/lockouts, etc.
For reference, Stanton has missed an average of 17 games per year since entering the league, and has amassed an average of four wins per year. By at least one measure, then, Stanton is better than everyone on the list but Mathews and Robinson to this point in his career. Through age 22, only Horner and Mathews have ever had fewer at-bats per home run than Stanton. In baseball history.
On the other hand, only Upton had more strikeouts through his age-22 season than Stanton has. In baseball history. To frame that more carefully, in 703 fewer plate appearances than Mickey Mantle had through the same age, Stanton struck out 50 more times. He struck out 46 more times than Alex Rodriguez did through the same age, although Rodriguez took the plate 773 more times.
This is why offense is endangered in baseball today, and why all young batters (all batters, period) are more boom-or-bust than ever. The soaring strikeout rates really lower the upside of guys like Stanton, who already fan at the highest rates in the league, because he now has to hit 40 home runs to be a star.
Compare Stanton to Gonzalez, the most natural and best match, and among the most recent. Gonzalez was 22 in 1992, and hit 43 home runs that year to set the stage for his sky-high prime production. He also fanned a lot: 143 strikeouts in 632 plate appearances, against only 35 walks. That 22.6-percent whiff rate was fifth-worst among qualifying batters in the AL that year, but he still hit the 43 homers and put 409 balls in play. Only 26.8 percent of those balls became hits, but it was enough for Gonzalez to hit .260 and slug .529.
Stanton played in 32 fewer games and batted 131 fewer times in 2012 than Gonzalez did 20 years ago. Yet, he struck out the same 143 times. That 28.5-percent strikeout rate was good for fourth-worst in the league. He did walk 46 times (to Gonzalez’s 35, remember, although the difference is 70 percent intentional walks), but the result was that Stanton only put 270 balls in play. Gonzalez was a much less polished hitter than Stanton, but because of the systemic changes in the game (the league leader in strikeout rate in 1992 would have ranked 15th in that category last year) give Stanton much less chance to get on base and dominate the game in all offensive aspects.
I’m nitpicking, though. The numbers suggest Stanton has a very good chance to be a dominant slugger for years, and some non-zero chance to be the next Juan Gonzalez or Mark McGwire. As the comparable players above demonstrate, Stanton’s mid-30s are unlikely to be as fruitful as those of, say, Starlin Castro (a very close contemporary), but the next 7-10 years—the term covered by a theoretical major extension—might see Stanton become the best power hitter in 15 years. If after (or even during) that deal he needs to move to first base in order to limit his injury risk, his bat will more than carry the burden of that transition.
Mapping Some Possibilities
First of all, a disclaimer of non-apology: I don’t care for the curmudgeonly dismissal of all speculative trade ideas that has become the vogue in sabermetric circles. It’s the worst kind of intellectual snobbery to claim that our ignorance of actual trade mechanics or prospect valuation should stop us from having some fun thinking about such things. Sometimes, baseball has to be fun, and these back-of-the-envelope, top-of-the-head arguments over unreal trades are tremendous fun, especially with the long winter looming.
Okay. Moving on.
There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball, and 30 of those 30 think Giancarlo Stanton is a phenomenal player worthy of a 10-year extension. Of these, though, one (Miami) has shot itself in the foot on that score. The other 29 teams would love to take Stanton off Miami’s hands, but a fistful (the Cubs, Indians, Rockies, Astros, Twins, Mets and Pirates) have no better use for Stanton than the Marlins do. Another subset (the Orioles, White Sox, Brewers, Yankees, Phillies, and Giants) lack the human capital to build a sufficient proposal. The Reds, Braves, Angels and Rays have the need and the prospects to swing a deal, but none have the long-term budget room to extend Stanton and make it really worth their while. The Diamondbacks, Red Sox, Royals, Dodgers, Athletics, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Nationals are an interesting group rich in young talent and with generally aggressive front offices, but who each seem set for the near term in the corner outfield spots. One could make a case for each to pursue Stanton, but I don’t feel especially compelled to do so.
That leaves Detroit, San Diego, Seattle and Texas as the best possible destinations for Stanton. Let’s break each down.
Here, since the Tigers just signed Torii Hunter to a two-year deal to play (ostensibly) right field, it’s important to point something out: It matters only a very, very little whether a corner outfielder can play right field or not. It does take a slightly stronger arm to play out there; the difference is real. However, the following were all regular left fielders in 2012, for some meaningful part of the season: Shelley Duncan, Johnny Damon, Delmon Young, Bobby Abreu, Juan Rivera, Tony Gwynn, J.D. Martinez, Jason Bay, Endy Chavez, Dayan Viciedo, Chone Figgins, Trayvon Robinson and Eric Thames. Corner outfielders are a whole lot less plentiful and less replaceable than they used to be, is what I’m saying, and good teams don’t worry whether their solid slugger is being wasted in left field or not.
Imagine the lineup Detroit could assemble if this trade took place:
Marlins get: Nick Castellanos, Rick Porcello, Avisail Garcia, Adam Wilk, Alex Avila
Tigers get: Giancarlo Stanton, Ricky Nolasco
It’s like the Miguel Cabrera-Dontrelle Willis trade, only it’s different. It’s the same because the Tigers would once again be relieving the Marlins of an onerous commitment to a pitcher, as part of an exchange netting Detroit one of the game’s elite power hitters. It’s different because… well, it really isn’t all that different.
Nick Castellanos plays the role of Cameron Maybin in this off-Broadway restaging of Miggy Goes Motown. He is the super-hyped Tigers positional prospect of whom there maybe should be just a little suspicion, because Dave Dombrowski almost never trades away a prospect who turns out to be the star most people think that prospect will be. In his particular case, a fall from the heights would still leave behind a pretty solid third baseman, though, and the upside is a guy who can consistently hit .300-.320 with average pop. He’s still most of a year away, but he’s not raw and difficult to forecast.
Paradoxically, ‘raw and difficult to forecast’ better describes four-year MLB veteran Rick Porcello. The Tigers rush starting pitchers like they have expiration dates, and Porcello simply never got the seasoning that should have come with an extra year or three in the minors. Now, though he just turned 24, he is a veteran of 120 MLB starts. He’s been usable, but not always useful, and his naturally live arm has yet to translate into any whiff of dominance.
On the other hand, he’s moving in the right direction. In 2012, he fanned 13.7 percent of opposing hitters–still markedly below the league-average rate, but the best mark of Porcello’s career. His average fastball velocity, which hovered around 90.5 miles per hour his first three years, spiked to 92 MPH this year. Just as encouragingly, every one of his other three offerings ticked up the same amount. Porcello also continued to get lots of ground balls. If not for the porous infield defense behind him (which led to a .344 BABIP against him), he might have made an even more pronounced step forward.
Still three years from free agency, Porcello would have a chance to emerge as a front-line hurler in Miami. He still has the live arm, after all, and he may finally be tapping into it. It’s fair to wonder, in fact, whether the Tigers have simply let Porcello off the chain after years of restraining him somewhat as a developmental injury-prevention tactic. Porcello has never started more than 31 times in a season, faced more than 784 batters in a season or pitched more than 182 innings in a season. Of his 120 career outings, 14 have seen him throw fewer than 80 pitches; 72 have been 80-99; 33 have been 100-119; and just one has been over 120 pitches. Even in this semi-breakout campaign, Porcello never surpassed 106 pitches in a single start. Porcello should be seen as a high-upside arm, even given his relatively veteran status.
Wildly misgiven Miguel Cabrera comparisons aside, Avisail Garcia has a chance to be an average big-league corner outfielder. Here’s a crucial thing to keep in mind when comparing prospects with similar tools, projection and athletic profiles: While plate discipline improves incrementally with age and poor discipline should not be considered reason to cast aside a prospect as a lost cause, it’s good plate discipline that sets superstars apart from average regulars, or worse.
Miguel Cabrera is a sensationally gifted hitter whose raw hit and power tools alone made him an elite prospect, but he also struck out just 262 times in 1,597 career minor-league plate appearances. He walked 131 times. That 16.4-percent strikeout rate and 8.2-percent walk rate suggest an ability to access every scrap of his physical gifts, and indeed, Cabrera has done so from his earliest introduction to big-league pitching. Garcia could be every bit as sheerly gifted as Cabrera (he isn’t), and his 21.1-percent career minor-league strikeout rate and 3.7-percent walk rate would still put a substantially lower ceiling on his projected future production than the one Cabrera had.
(Posnanskian aside for fellow Cubs fans: Javier Baez keeps getting compared to Gary Sheffield. This, presumably, is because he’s from Florida; plays shortstop but may have to move off the position; leads the world in bat speed; was drafted in the top 10 of the first round; and has a certain intensity and arrogance that fuel his every move. Stop it. Gary Sheffield batted 1,442 times in the minor leagues before reaching MLB. He had 159 walks and 125 strikeouts (11-percent walk rate, 8.6-percent strikeout rate), insane numbers. Admittedly, Baez has batted just 339 times as a professional so far, but he has 73 whiffs and only 14 walks in that span. Come on.)
Okay, we’re getting off the rails slightly here. The 2013 season will be Garcia’s age-22 year, and he is nearly as young as a baseball-age-22 guy can be, born three weeks or so ahead of the cutoff. He came up 76 times, combining the regular and postseason, and reached base 27 times in the Majors in 2012. He should be a solid player, if a marginal regular, although it will be interesting to see how he adjusts if given more significant playing time—and thus facing more right-handed pitching. Of right-handed batters with 50 or more PA in the AL in 2012, only Jason Bourgeois, Andruw Jones, Casey McGehee, Lew Ford and Brandon Hicks faced left-handed pitchers in a higher percentage of their plate appearances than Garcia. That’s a set of very limited, part-time players, all but Bourgeois non-athletes.
In his professional career, Garcia has a .269 Equivalent Average (EqA, a statistic scaled to batting average but which accounts for all offensive skills, plus base-running, and also adjusts for both park and league effects) against southpaws, and a .242 mark against right-handers. That’s the difference, in 2012, between Lucas Duda and Juan Rivera. Again, think of it like batting average. Garcia can hit some, is what that says, and is even an above-average hitter against lefties. Given his approach problems; mix of power and pure hitting ability; and ability to play either corner outfield spot (again, doesn’t matter much which) without killing the team, Garcia profiles as a usable (but not elite) replacement for Stanton and a good source of raw talent on which the Marlins can gamble fairly profitably.
Alex Avila is the piece it would excruciate Detroit to tack onto this package. He’s a left-hitting catcher, the son of their assistant GM. He had a phenomenal 2011 season, but his value has fallen after a less stellar 2012. At age 26, he will be first-time arbitration-eligible in 2013, and his lack of power or the numbers that the arbitration process traditionally rewards makes it likely he’ll be a terrific value straight on til free agency.
Avila is limited in his own way, as left-handed pitching cripples him. In 2012, he batted .176/.304/.235 against lefties. In his MLB career, he owns a modest .218/.322/.317 line against them. That leaves him unable to be a true star, but in a way, he’s also the perfect catcher.
A catcher will wear down and have a much greater risk of injury if overused over the course of a season. Most teams simply shuffle their guy out of the lineup twice a week, but clubs with very good offensive catchers can find it tough to do so. The Tigers ran into that problem with Avila in 2011, allowing him virtually no rest down the stretch, and he responded with miserable performance in the playoffs. A lefty with platoon problems, like Avila, recommends his own days off by not being able to hit roughly 27 percent of the starting hurlers the team will see during the year. The Marlins, who gained the consummate back-up backstop in Jeff Mathis when they made their deal with the Jays, would have a very good medium-term answer, and possibly a flippable asset, in Avila.
Wilk will be 25 in December, and has faced only 112 batters in the big leagues. He averages a shade shy of 89 miles per hour on his four-seam fastball, and neither of his breaking balls are special offerings. On the other hand, he’s a lefty with virtually no platoon split; rated as the arm with the best control and best change-up in the Tigers’ system according to Baseball America; and has walked only six of the aforementioned 112 batters faced in his MLB turn. With a good defense behind him–and Miami could well field a very good defense going forward–and in a more forgiving overall environment, Wilk might blossom into a bigger, more durable Travis Wood. That should appeal to the Marlins.
This deal would fill right field, third base, catcher and two rotation slots for Miami by the end of 2013. Not all of the players they would stand to acquire are true impact guys. If they were, they would comprise a package too rich to surrender even for Stanton. Still, it’s a good mix of readiness and long-term control, with the potential to turn Porcello or Avila into a different long-term asset if things go badly.
Meanwhile, Detroit would continue to build a star-centric, top-heavy roster at the expense of its farm system. Yet, for a team with the bitter taste of a second lost World Series in seven years in its mouth, it would be worthwhile. There’s building through free agency and aging offense, and then there’s building by systematically acquiring the elite offensive talent that becomes available only now and then. Yes, this trade would necessitate signing a marginal regular catcher to keep Victor Martinez in the primary DH role. The money will get wacky in the short term. Luckily, owner Mike Illitch is getting desperate to deliver a winner, and the new TV revenue is about to start raining down on the entire league. This deal would make Detroit the best offensive team in baseball, and help them take aim at another long October.
San Diego Padres
This might seem a strange fit, and right now it is one, but the dynamics are changing. The Padres, whom many local patrons can’t watch regularly on TV right now, will soon be making megabucks on a deal that will make them much more viable players in free agency beginning next year. They’re one of the three or four deepest organizations, prospects-wise, in the game, and if they perceive (as I do) that the next NL West powerhouse will be crowned this winter, they have tremendous incentive to move now and consolidate their MLB-ready talent into a true superstar, the one thing they currently lack.
Marlins get: Rymer Liriano, Jedd Gyorko, Austin Hedges, Robbie Erlin, Andrew Cashner, Casey Kelly
Padres get: Giancarlo Stanton, Ricky Nolasco
Rymer Liriano shares an uncomfortable number of profile traits with Avisail Garcia, especially since he had a worse season than Garcia. Like Garcia, Liriano was listed as a 21-year-old in 2012, but would have been listed at 20 had he been born a fortnight later. Like Garcia, Liriano has a modestly athletic build that suggests more power than he has shown in his pro career to date. Like Garcia, he began the year in High-A.
Unlike Garcia, Liriano did not sniff the big leagues in 2012. Part of that is a function of organizational needs, priorities and depth: The Tigers had a dearth of passable outfielders and all kinds of motivation to go for it down the stretch, while the Padres were out of contention by the All-Star break and had Carlos Quentin, Cameron Maybin, Chris Denorfia, Will Venable, Jesus Guzman and others. Still, that Garcia found his way to the parent club while Liriano struggled in a stint at Double-A to finish the year is ominous.
I don’t want to oversell the similarities between these two. While Liriano is no Wade Boggs, he drew 41 walks (against 119 strikeouts) in 520 plate appearances this season. Garcia had 513 plate appearances prior to his call-up, and had a 95:18 strikeout-to-walk ratio by then. Liriano stole 32 times in 40 tries; Garcia stole 22 times in 30. Liriano had 32 doubles, four triples and eight home runs; Garcia had 17, eight and 14, and no extra-base hits in his big-league stint. Liriano is much more projectable, overall. Miami would certainly prefer him to Garcia.
Of course, whereas Garcia would be the third piece in a theoretical Detroit deal, Liriano looks like the crown jewel of San Diego’s package. This is indicative of where the Padres stand: They have depth, from the big-league level down to their Dominican academy, but they lack star power in a big way. They can’t offer anything as appealing as Nick Castellanos. That’s why this deal would include six pieces, all of them substantially better than (say) Adam Wilk.
Jedd Gyorko, in contrast with Liriano, had a phenomenal 2012. He hit 30 home runs, 24 of them after an early-season promotion to Triple-A Tucson. At 24 years old, he appears ready for a big-league break in 2013—but for being stuck behind NL MVP finalist Chase Headley on the Padres’ third-base depth chart. Gyorko is not a huge human being, but that actually isn’t so bad. I believe firmly that baseball is selecting the wrong guys to man third base. It’s a position that exacts a heavy toll on the quick-twitch muscles, plus the back and shoulders, and yet the modern third baseman usually looks more like Bob Horner than Wade Boggs. The fact that Ryan Zimmerman, Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre so frequently get hurt doesn’t signal a weakness of character or masculature they all share, but rather, a problem inextricable from the choice to ask such big guys to charge bunts and dive for one-hop smashes on a thrice-daily basis. Gyorko has the arm, explosion and athleticism to play third base well and still hit for power as he makes the final transition, to MLB. A shortstop as an amateur, he’s drifted between second and third base in the minors, and is a better fit at the hot corner.
There may be an Anthony Rizzo problem in play, though. Gyorko did hit .328/.380/.588 in 408 PA at Tucson last season, but in 2011, Rizzo hit .331/.404/.652 in 413 PA there—then flopped like an NBC pilot in his first taste of the big leagues. Tucson is a great hitters’ park in a great hitters’ league, and that must be taken into account when assessing guys who have breakout seasons there.
There’s also the matter of Gyorko’s age. He’s a college draftee, and just went pro in 2010, but still, we’re talking about a 24-year-old who has yet to make his MLB debut. There’s no question Gyorko is closer to the big leagues than Nick Castellanos, but on the other hand, Castellanos is three and a half years younger. Scouts sometimes talk about age-versus-level, a concept that helps in adjusting numbers (or even visual perceptions of dominance) for the player’s expected production given their context. A guy who’s killing the ball at Double-A at 21 is more impressive than the same guy doing the same thing at 22, obviously.
I have certain reservations about age-versus-level as a developmental yardstick, but in terms of long-term valuation of a prospect, it definitely matters. It matters, because if a guy hasn’t yet reached MLB by the time he is 24 or 25, he’s only going to be at his best for two or three years. In other words, he will get expensive precisely as he begins to decline. Aging curves are imperfect, and better characterize the overall population of players than any individual, but generally, position players have their best seasons between ages 26 and 28.
That said, Gyorko is a potential immediate fix, either at second or third base, for the Marlins. Between him and Hechavarria, Miami should have the left side of its infield figured out for a few years if this deal takes place.
Austin Hedges is a long-term investment, but a tremendous one. He was an old 19 at Low-A Ft. Wayne in 2012, but hit .279/.334/.451 there. That’s a great line for a catcher in a very pitcher-friendly league, but the bat is a virtual afterthought for Hedges, anyway. He is, at worst, the next Jeff Mathis, at best, the next Yadier Molina. Scouts rave about Hedges. Catchers invariably need a lot of seasoning and coaching on receiving and framing pitches; preparing with multiple pitchers; footwork, the glove-to-hand exchange when throwing out base stealers; and a million other subtleties of the most difficult position to play in all of sport. Yet Hedges, some say, would be a first-division defender behind the plate if he debuted tomorrow. If catchers are better as veterans, imagine for how long Austin Hedges has a chance to be a centerpiece of the Marlins organization.
The pitchers in this deal are not as appealing a group as the position players. PETCO Park has always been a boon to pitchers’ stats, but with few exceptions, changes in environment beget changes in numbers, not true value shifts. Moving the fences in for the 2013 season will be an interesting experiment, because if you ask a lot of people, a humid ballpark very near sea level need not be cavernous to quash home-run numbers. If anything, one might expect run scoring to drop as a result of this change, because fewer balls will bound into the monstrous gaps that once characterized the park, stunting the runners who would otherwise score from first on a double, or stretch the occasional double into a triple.
Anyway, the Padres are not loaded with good arms, even if one accepts the face value of the statistics many of their pitchers posted in 2012. Injury has somewhat devastated them in this regard, with Joe Wieland, Cory Luebke, Casey Kelly, Adys Portillo and Robbie Erlin all missing substantial time. Luebke’s long-term, team-friendly contract makes him all but untouchable, but Erlin makes sense as the top arm in this trade for Miami.
Although he missed three months of 2012 with elbow tendinitis, Erlin is pitching free, easy and well in fall and winter ball. Around the injury, he pitched well for the Padres’ Double-A team in San Antonio, fanning 72 and walking only 14 in 52.2 innings. Assuming he really has dodged Tommy John’s bullet, Erlin should reach the big leagues before the All-Star Game in 2013. He lacks the physicality and raw stuff to project as anything like the strikeout stud he has been in the minors, but he should be a solid mid-rotation guy for years.
Andrew Cashner has the physicality and raw stuff to be a strikeout stud. What he needs now is finer command, a third pitch he can rely on, and considerably more durability than he has shown to date. Like Erlin, Cashner is a trade acquisition of recent vintage, but although he pitched a full season, Cashner, too, stalled in a key developmental season in 2012. He’s big, has a plus slider to go with his upper-90s heat, and struck out 23 while walking three in a five-start audition for San Diego, but he broke down when the Cubs tried to stretch him out full-time in 2011, and he’s tended to overthrow (my amateur diagnosis, but his velocity, strikeout rate and walk rate all rise) when shifted to high-leverage relief. He’s definitely not a top-shelf young arm, but he has upside galore, and Miami could capture it with this deal.
Casey Kelly runs more toward Erlin than Cashner, in terms of pitcher skills, but as a tall and athletic right-hander, he more resembles Cashner. He had a rather disappointing introduction to MLB in 2012, but after injuries held him back most of the season, it’s encouraging that he even got there. He probably needs another dozen starts in Triple-A before he re-matriculates, but Kelly is another solid potential innings eater.
Two rotation slots, maybe three. An average regular in right field, another at second or third base, and a gem of a catching prospect for new manager Mike Redmond to salivate over. This trade would serve Miami quite well.
This might be the most bizarre of all the scenarios, all the teams, because one could argue perfectly cogently for the Mariners to blow things up a bit, trade Felix Hernandez and rebuild in the Marlins’ mold, not reach for an elite slugger whose skills (while seemingly park-proof, as 25 of his 37 homers in 2012 would have left at least 29 of the 30 MLB parks) aren’t a perfect match for the environment. I just happen to be a little sweeter on the core they have in place in Seattle than most are.
Marlins get: Mike Zunino, Taijuan Walker, Nick Franklin, Erasmo Ramirez, Brad Miller
Mariners get: Giancarlo Stanton
The Mariners have the star power to get a deal done without devastating the depth of their system. Sometimes, though, depth is exactly what a team would prefer to surrender in a deal. Miami might insist upon James Paxton instead of Ramirez and Miller, but there’s no reason for Seattle to include both Walker and Paxton in their initial offer.
Zunino, the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, is a potentially special player. No 2012 draftee did better in their professional debut. A good glove man behind the plate, Zunino hit very well even in an aggressive promotion to Double-A to finish the year. He’s blocked, though, by John Jaso, a fine glove man himself, and a left-handed hitter with a .359 OBP and more walks than strikeouts in his career. With the fences moving in in Seattle next season, expect Jaso to tap into a little more power, as he has never played his home games in anything resembling a hitters’ park, and therefore, he has a .792 OPS on the road (versus .715 at home) in his career.
It’s important not to leap to the conclusion that Zunino is one of baseball’s best prospects. His debut season, however impressive, was only 190 plate appearances long. He was the fourth overall pick in a very weak draft. He’s probably a full year away from the big leagues. Even so, he’s an attractive centerpiece even in this trade.
Technically a 19-year-old, Taijuan Walker pitched the full 2012 season at Double-A West Tenn. He turned 20 in August and struggled a bit (with a 4.69 ERA in a pitcher-friendly league), but age-versus-level says he retains significant promise. He struck out 118 in 550 batters faced, and should be able to stretch out in Triple-A and maybe even debut with a big-league team in 2013. There are, by my rough count, five or six pitching prospects in all of baseball whom a clear-eyed evaluator would take ahead of Walker.
Switch-hitting is a strange practice that has morphed a number of times in big-league history. Once primarily the domain of the unreasonably gifted (Mickey Mantle, for instance), it became a pitfall into which fast players were pushed after Maury Wills came along. Many guys were taught to switch-hit in the minor leagues, even if it felt very unnatural, simply to get a step closer to first base against right-handed pitchers, and to get a fairly insignificant platoon advantage. In the modern era, it has become maybe as peculiar a phenomenon as ever it has been, because many modern switch-hitters are very different hitters from the respective sides of the plate—Mark Teixeira is the most notable example.
Nick Franklin embodies the next phase of switch-hitting’s evolution. A natural left-handed hitter, he switch hits to avoid being completely and totally beyond utility against left-handed pitchers. He still isn’t much good against them: a .205 EqA in 119 at bats in 2012. Still, he has a fine hit tool and good pop for a slender 170-pound middle infielder. He hit 32 doubles, nine triples and 11 home runs at 21 in fairly pitcher-friendly environs (Double-A West Tenn. and Triple-A Tacoma) this season. If Franklin is more comfortable having a longer look at the ball against lefty hurlers, it’s hard to argue with him.
The biggest problem Franklin faces may not even be his struggles against southpaw pitching, but rather, his likely eventual need to move to second base. He’s not big and physical, his arm isn’t especially strong, and if he does move to second base, the pressure to hit—from BOTH sides of the plate—goes up. Second basemen have to be everyday guys in the modern era, with bullpens expanding and so few roster spots available to bench players. At 22, though, Franklin is on the cusp of MLB readiness, and he should get plenty of opportunity (wherever he might be) to figure out port-siders.
Entering 2012, Erasmo Ramirez ranked 15th on Baseball Prospectus’ ranking of Mariners prospects, and 13th in the Baseball America rendition. He was seen as a good command guy, but one who lacked the swing-and-miss stuff necessary to dominate hitters at the big-league level. Now, Ramirez will be off Mariner prospect lists completely—but only because he has graduated into a good big-leaguer at age 22. He faced 238 batters in the big leagues in 2012, striking out 20 percent of them and walking only five percent. His 3.36 ERA seems to have been only very slightly illusory, as he also posted a 3.50 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, an estimator of a pitcher’s core skills—strikeout rate, walk rate and home-run rate—scaled to ERA for ease of evaluation) and a 3.65 FRA (Fair Run Average, scaled to run average (RA) in total, not just earned runs; it measure slightly different things than FIP), plus the strikeout-to-walk ratio clearly supports his case as a legitimate hurler.
Better still are the higher-level indices of his skills. Ramirez threw both a four-seam and a two-seam fastball, in about equal measure, both at an average velocity of about 92.5 miles per hour. His slider is not sweeping or nasty, but a little nickel-curve really; various pitch-tracking software had trouble differentiating it from a cutter. He also throws a curve ball and change-up, both in the mid-to-high-70s. None of his secondary pitches rate as plus, but with the good moving fastball, they don’t need to be more than average. A healthy 11.3 percent of Ramirez’s total pitches resulted in swinging strikes. He is a fly-ball pitcher, but nearly 15 percent of all fly balls against him were infield pop-ups, and whether he continues pitching in Seattle or flips to Miami, a fly-ball profile won’t kill him. He may never be more than a fourth starter, but he seems to be there already, with no signs of imminent regression. (Yes, he allowed a very modest .243 batting average on balls in play, but he also stranded a below-average 67.2 percent of base runners. It doesn’t quite even out, but we’re within the margin.)
Brad Miller is the wild card that lends the deal an extra pinch of upside for Miami. He’s old for his age, if you will, set to play all next season at age 23 but not likely to reach the big leagues until 2014. He only reached Double-A for the final third of 2012, at age 22. Although bigger and stronger than Franklin, Miller is an erratic defensive shortstop, the kind of guy that—if he doesn’t straighten it out—will not have defensive value anywhere. On the other hand, because his upside is a plus defender based on raw tools, he’s a good risk that way.
He’s also a good risk at the plate. He hit .339/.412/.524 at High-A in 2012, with 49 extra-base hits, 19 stolen bases, 52 walks and 79 strikeouts in 473 plate appearances. Moving up, he clobbered Southern League pitching to the tune of .320/.406/.476 (remember, no professional league had a lower collective OPS than the Southern this season) with 13 extra-base hits, four stolen bases, 22 walks and 26 strikeouts in 170 plate appearances. He bats left-handed, to boot. Think Stephen Drew, if everything comes together for him, or Kelly Johnson with less power.
Miami would get immediate help in their rotation, but this deal would be more about the long term (relative to the near) than any other proposal here included. They might have a star future catcher in Zunino. They might have a future ace in Walker. They probably would have a future middle infielder, and maybe the whole future middle infield, in Franklin and Miller.
Seattle, meanwhile, would build upon what I believe to be an undersold core group, and could hang onto the most imminent of their future key players. In addition to the aforementioned Jaso, they already have young DH project Jesus Montero (103 career OPS+, his struggles overstated last year because he called SafeCo home); Felix Hernandez (who just had the best season, by essential skills indices, of his phenomenal career); Kendrys Morales, a much-needed injection of offense begotten by dealing away Jason Vargas at just the right moment; Michael Saunders, who at 25 finally tapped into his tools at the big league level, hit 19 home runs, stole 21 bases and had a 110 OPS+; Brendan Ryan, baseball’s best defensive shortstop; Kyle Seager, who (like Saunders) found his stroke in 2012, socked 20 home runs and notched an identical 110 OPS+; Franklin Gutierrez, who (if he ever stays healthy for a full season again) is still one of baseball’s best defensive outfielders and a good enough hitter to be valuable; busted prospects Dustin Ackley, Hector Noesi and Justin Smoak, who despite their miserable early returns have major upside left; Hisashi Iwakuma, whom they brought over from Japan; and a bullpen stocked with strikeout arms like Tom Wilhelmsen, Charlie Furbush, Shawn Kelley and Carter Capps.
Add Stanton to that crew, plus James Paxton and Danny Hultzen in the rotation, and the Mariners would suddenly stand much closer to the very good Rangers, Athletics and Angels than to the lowly Astros in the AL West.
Of all the teams proposed here to make a run at Stanton, it’s the Rangers who match best with the Marlins in terms of roster-building objectives and priorities. A great team like Texas, whose farm system may be the strongest and is certainly the deepest in the American League, has every reason to use their excess talent to acquire a superstar. Talent consolidation is the name of their game right now.
On the other hand, Miami should be looking for their next superstar, too, not merely collecting a bunch of mid-tier guys who will eventually be average. It isn’t that those players (guys like Nicolino, Hechavarria and Mathis, whom they got from Toronto) don’t have value; they do. It’s just that, in the modern baseball economy, truly elite players do not become available via free agency. You have to draft and sign them out of Latin America, and if you’re going to give one up (as Miami ought to do), you should try to get one (or more) of a nearly equal caliber in return. San Diego can offer Miami a future lineup full of guys who belong in the big leagues, but not one that can be their centerpiece for the next decade on a seven-year extension they will sign two years from now. The Rangers can do that.
Marlins get: Jurickson Profar, Martin Perez, Leonys Martin, Wilmer Font
Rangers get: Giancarlo Stanton, Ricky Nolasco
I’m in the camp that says Profar for Justin Upton would have been a fair enough deal, but I understand why Texas elected (or has done so to this point) to pass on it. Upton, after all, is due $38.5 million over the next three seasons, then becomes a free agent. Stanton is under control one year longer, has probably been better than Upton was through age 22, and will make perhaps half that $38.5 million, perhaps less, over the next three years.
That’s why I can’t see any reason for Texas not to bite the bullet and deal Profar for Stanton. He’s not Justin Upton. He’s not James Shields, or even David Price. Stanton is a four-year asset. He’s young. He will make fewer than $1 million this season. He’s worth taking the leap.
Profar is a phenomenal asset in his own right, maybe as valuable as Stanton, but not as valuable to the Texas Rangers. They need to win now, and Profar will not turn 20 until February. They have Elvis Andrus ahead of Profar at shortstop, and a hole (or two) in the outfield. The time value of Stanton overwhelms the long-term value of Profar, for my money, and by no small margin.
The other pieces of this trade, like Profar, can simply be drawn from the Rangers’ deep wells of talent at various positions. Profar comes from a shortstop surplus; Texas has Andrus and can replace him with Leury Garcia if injury strikes. Perez is a left-handed starter, and very possibly a good one, but with Derek Holland and Matt Harrison in the rotation already, plus Robbie Ross in the bullpen, Texas hardly lacks southpaw pitching.
Martin is the closest thing in the Rangers system to a competent, big-league-ready, everyday center fielder. However, with Craig Gentry and David Murphy on the big-league roster; Julio Borbon not yet done as a potential regular; a trio of very high-risk, very high-reward center-field prospects in place; and Michael Bourn just sitting out there, waiting, the Rangers can spare Martin.
A left-hitting, tall and rangy athlete, Martin has upside to which I think many observers have given short shrift. He doesn’t have elite speed, but he’s definitely a center fielder. He doesn’t have elite power, either, but in 260 plate appearances in Triple-A in 2012, he had 32 extra-base hits. He has always handled the strike zone well. If he stays healthy, Martin is a slightly less athletic version of Cameron Maybin or Dexter Fowler, and that’s a very attractive player.
Font is the lottery ticket, and honestly, he’s more like a scratch-off already half scratched. He pitched purely in relief after a mid-2012 promotion to Double-A Frisco, and he’s huge, and has trouble holding his mechanics deep into games.
On the other hand, in a mostly starting role in High-A in the first half, Font fanned 109 of 337 batters faced, and only walked 37. He’s a high-leverage reliever if nothing goes right, a Carlos Zambrano type starter if everything does.
Those are the assets. That’s the cost of adding Stanton to a good offense that needs to get better if Texas wants to maintain its mantle as baseball’s best team. However, I want to take a moment to dispel a silly notion about what, exactly, the Rangers need.
With Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus as the core of the offense, the Rangers are, at present, very right-handed. Murphy and new catcher/DH A.J. Pierzynski are adequate lefty bats, but not Josh Hamilton-caliber, and for that reason, some commentary I have seen has objected to adding a major commitment to a Stanton or an Upton. This is foolishness.
I agree with the general premise, at least loosely. Teams do need balance. They do need to be able to attack pitchers of either handedness. They need to do as many things well as possible. That’s precisely why any team should want Giancarlo Stanton. His career OPS against right-handed pitchers is .894. By wOBA, Stanton has been the 14th-best batter against right-handed pitching in baseball since his debut, and the sixth-best among right-handed batters. The best left-handed sluggers available are Jason Kubel (in trade) and Adam LaRoche (a free agent), with respective three-year wOBAs against northpaws of .351 and .348. Stanton stands at .381. The point: you need more nuanced information than a batter’s handedness to know how he fits on a given club.
Miami got a large number of good role players in the Ramirez, Sanchez/Infante and Reyes/Johnson/Buehrle/Wade/Bosh/Marino/Pat Riley deals. This trade, if they make it, should be about landing a superstar they can control—and treat better than they have treated Stanton, and surround with better talent than that with which they have surrounded Stanton—for many years. Profar is the best fit, maybe the only fit.
The Last Step
So, it’s decided. The Rangers match Miami better than anyone else in terms of talent available. They’re also best situated to leverage the marginal wins Stanton provides. Pretend for a moment that the above deal is done.
There’s one thing left. Stanton is a Ranger, and in order to ensure that they don’t lose this asset for which they have paid so handsomely at the age of 27, Texas wants to extend him through 2020. What should it cost?
We need to refer back to the comparable players and valuation of Stanton above. Happily, two players very similar to Stanton through age 22 are rough contemporaries, and each signed extensions of the typer we’re looking to sketch.
Jusatin Upton signed a six-year, $51.25-million extension with the Arizona Diamondbacks at the same stage of his career as Stanton is at right now, giving up two free-agent seasons in the process. Miguel Cabrera waited two extra years, gave up six free-agent ones, and got an eight-year, $152.3-million deal from Detroit.
I think we want to aim for the center of that range. A deal through 2020 for Stanton would run eight years, for four of which he would otherwise be a free agent. I envision an eight-year pact worth $128 million for him, scaling up from $1.25 million in 2013 to $23 million by 2020. That’s very rich, but compares closely to extensions recently given to Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Braun.
I think it’s very possible Stanton is done as a star at the end of this proposed deal, and out of baseball by age 35. He’s too big to project a fully healthy 20-year career, and too power-centric and strikeout-prone to age as gracefully as, for example, Jason Heyward might. At his peak, though, Stanton could be the best and most dangerous power hitter of his generation. The Marlins, ill-equipped in a number of ways to get the most out of his peak production, should maximize their profit potential by selling high.