The Marlins and the Coming Giancarlo Stanton Reality

The Marlins lost 100 games last year, and there’s no way around it: that’s a terrible season. It’s the low point to date of a slide that started after an 87-75 2009, dropping to 82, 90, and 93 losses before hitting the century mark last year, and that’s embarrassing even if we’re just sticking to the on-the-field miscues, rather than also including the continued tragicomedy that is the ownership of Jeffrey Loria. Were it not for the teardown of the Houston Astros, the Marlins would be the worst team in baseball.

But even then, it was easy to argue that it wasn’t entirely a lost season. The atrocious optics of last winter’s massive deal with Toronto gave way to a quiet appreciation that the move actually made a good amount of baseball sense, and of course they saw Jose Fernandez go from “highly touted prospect” to “Rookie of the Year and arguable Cy Young winner in a world without Clayton Kershaw.” I tried to make the case at ESPN last summer that the considerable amount of young talent the organization was accumulating could have them poised to make one of their once-a-decade runs, and my pal Marc Normandin did much the same at Sports on Earth in September.

So if in October, you’d have heard that the Marlins were going to sign six major league free agents, add two more via trade, and almost entirely blow up their under-performing infield, you might have thought that Miami was working to reinforce their young core. You might not have expected this collection of assorted parts from the island of misfit veterans:

Right. That’s two guys in their thirties who didn’t play in the bigs last year (Furcal & McGehee), and one who was outrighted off the 40-man roster by the Astros just last winter (Bogusevic). The two-year deals went to a pair of 32-year-olds, one of whom was a non-roster invite last season (Baker), the other below replacement-level (Jones). One was, is, and continues to be Carlos Marmol.

While Saltalamacchia’s deal looks nice considering the money thrown around this winter, and Capps is an intriguing bullpen piece, there’s a reason Miami ranks last — by a lot — in our 2014 projections. An infield of mediocre veterans on the back nine — don’t forget that Greg Dobbs has a contract, and Ty Wigginton is in camp on a minor-league deal — around the unplayable offense of shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria isn’t exactly a recipe for success. Last year’s Placido Polanco and Juan Pierre are this year’s Furcal and Jones; wash, rinse, repeat.

So while the Marlins appear content to run out a zombified infield rather than give Donovan Solano (26) another chance or let Derek Dietrich (25) attempt to apply his minor league success in the bigs or try to make a move to acquire a young infielder, 2014 looks like another year in transition. It’ll be a time to let Christian Yelich, Nathan Eovaldi, Jake Marisnick and friends attempt to prove themselves as big league players, and that’s fine, but to even get to 70 wins for the first time in three seasons would count as a success. Safe to say, there’s no hope for October baseball in Miami this year.

That’s not really news, but it is particularly relevant because it means we need to talk about Giancarlo Stanton‘s contract status, which is pretty much the only non-Fernandez or Loria or nightmare home run feature reason anyone talks about the Marlins these days. Stanton is eligible to be a free agent following the 2016 season, which means Miami controls him for three more years. 2014 is almost certainly not going to be a playoff season. It’s excessively difficult to see 2015 being any different. 2016, well, maybe, if the young core progresses well, but by then it’s nearly too late, because the Freddie Freeman extension from last week has shed a bit of light on to Stanton’s value, and if there was any doubt Miami couldn’t retain him before, it should be clear as day now.

Because they were born less than two months apart from each other in the fall of 1989 and both debuted in the bigs in 2010 at age 20, these two make for a nice comparison:

Stanton 2002 .265 .354 .535 .379 138 13.5
Freeman 1908 .285 .358 .466 .357 127 7.1

In essentially the same amount of playing time to date, Stanton has been a superior offensive performer to Freeman in every way, though perhaps the reality isn’t by as much as WAR indicates, since Stanton’s multiple aches and pains on such a large frame have to be taken into account. Still, barring a major injury, power still gets paid, and there’s arguably no one in the game who can match Stanton’s raw power.

Now Freeman has been valued at $28.5 million (including signing bonus) for his remaining three arbitration years, and $106.5 million for the five free agent years Atlanta is purchasing after that. As Dave Cameron has written about extensively over the last week, as shocking as those numbers seem, they’re almost a discount, since teams increasingly are willing to pay for youth, as long as that youth has shown the ability to produce. Freeman easily showed that, and now he’s massively wealthy. Stanton has shown that too, arguably to a greater extent than Freeman, and if he stays healthy, he’ll be rich beyond his wildest dreams as well.

That number is only going to increase the longer Stanton goes without a deal, and the Marlins reportedly haven’t even approached him about a contract as of last month. That’s partially because of the annual inflation of salaries, but also because each year that goes by means that the team has one fewer season of artificially-depressed team control salary they can buy out. If Freeman signed for 8/$135m with three years of control remaining, it’s not at all difficult to see Stanton going for $150m or more next year, a realistic number (assuming, again, a healthy 2014) considering that the similarly-aged Elvis Andrus picked up 8/$120m from Texas last year with two years left of team control. Andrus, obviously, contributes better defense at a much more valuable position, but the market still loves to pay for power, which we’ll soon see when someone actually gives Nelson Cruz a multiyear deal.

Do remember that it’s not only on the team to sign a contract, because the player has to want to strike a deal as well, and no one has forgotten Stanton’s vocal displeasure with the team after the Toronto trade. We haven’t heard much that indicates that his position has changed, and the Freeman deal now puts his price to a level that Miami almost certainly can’t — or more likely, won’t — reach.

Where this leaves the Marlins is in a position that’s entirely full of risk. They can’t compete in 2014 even with Stanton, and his presence may merely help them get to 71 wins rather than 66. They almost certainly can’t keep him long-term, and they risk his value evaporating if his next leg injury is a serious one. Sure, a Stanton trade risks angering their fan base, but at this point it barely matters, since no one bothers to come see this team even with him. Further than that, the way their young talent is set up — heavy on pitching, heavy on outfielders with Yelich, Marisnick, and Marcell Ozuna, but extremely light on infielders outside of third baseman Colin Moran — means that dealing from a position of strength to try to fix a likely problem on the next good Marlins team makes all the sense in the world.

The Marlins likely won’t trade Stanton this year, because they’ve been adamant they plan to “build around him.” Yet with the team very unlikely to contend for at least two of his three remaining years, and the idea of him signing an extension even less likely, there’s no upside for the Marlins here. Freeman’s extension has set a baseline for what Stanton can expect, and for the sake of the potentially-competitive 2016-18 Marlins, Stanton has to go — sooner than later.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or