On Sunday, the Marlins made a head-scratching trade, acquiring reliever Bryan Morris from the Pirates in exchange for their Competitive Balance selection — #39 overall — in Thursday’s amateur draft. Morris does have some virtues as a very hard-throwing groundball guy who is decently effective against right-handed batters, but he also has a long list of flaws; his command is lousy, he can’t get left-handers out, and even used as a situational reliever, he’s been pretty terrible this year.
If you evaluate his Major League career solely by runs allowed, he’s been essentially a replacement level arm. If you evaluate that performance by metrics that predict ERA better than ERA itself, Morris has been one of the worst relief pitchers in all of baseball over the last year. Morris is somewhere between bad and unrosterable, and yet the Marlins gave up a draft pick that has some real value in exchange for a right-handed specialist who isn’t even all that great at that very niche job.
But on Monday, we found out why the Marlins made that trade. Rather than justifying the deal, however, the actual motivation for the move reinforces every negative perception about baseball’s worst organization.
On Monday, the Marlins signed free agent reliever Kevin Gregg, giving him the pro-rated portion of a $2.1 million salary for 2014. Because the deal only covers the final two-thirds of the season, he’ll receive $1.4 million in actual salary from the Marlins this year. Not coincidentally, $1.4 million is exactly the amount of money the Marlins saved by giving away the 39th pick in the draft.
The idea that the Marlins, a team that opened the year with a payroll of just $47.5 million, had to offset the acquisition cost of Kevin Gregg (!) by punting a valuable draft choice is patently ridiculous. Let us count the ways.
1. Like Morris, Kevin Gregg is also essentially a replacement level arm. Over the last three years, he’s been worth +0.0 WAR by runs allowed or -0.6 WAR by FIP. Of the 172 relievers to throw 100+ innings over the last three years, Gregg ranks 155th in ERA-, 159th in FIP-, and 165th in xFIP-. Unlike Morris, he doesn’t even have a large platoon split that can be leveraged for specific match-ups, as he’s just bad against everyone. He turns 36 in a few weeks. There’s no upside here, really; Kevin Gregg defines replacement level, which is why both teams who signed him last year gave him minor league deals, and why no one was beating down his door with a job offer over the winter.
2. It’s not like there weren’t other options. Vin Mazzaro isn’t appreciably worse than either Morris or Gregg, is earning a grand total of $950,000 in salary this year, and has already been designated for assignment by the Pirates twice this year. He cleared waivers in April, and is currently in “DFA limbo”, waiting to find out whether he cleared again. If the Marlins simply put in a waiver claim on Mazzaro, they could have owned his rights for the rest of the year for approximately $600,000. Want someone with better stuff than Mazzaro? Esmil Rogers was DFA’d and cleared waivers last week. The White Sox just released Frank Francisco if the team absolutely needed a guy with closer experience even though Steve Cishek is pitching well in the 9th inning. Gregg and Morris aren’t significantly better than any number of relievers who have been passed through waivers in the last few weeks.
3. The draft pick had real value. The 39th pick isn’t as likely to turn into a star as a top-10 selection, but the fact that most of those picks fail is offset by the upside of the guys who succeed. The best player ever selected 39th overall? Some guy named Barry Bonds; you might have heard of him. Historical draft studies have shown that the average return on a pick in the 30-40 range is about +3 WAR, and as Neal Hutington said when he traded away a similar pick last year, their calculations suggest that “there’s about a 15% chance of getting an everyday big-leaguer in the 30-to-40 pick range.” That isn’t something to just be discarded so that a team can add a couple of low value relief arms to their bullpen.
4. This might be point #4, but it’s the one that is particularly outrageous; there is absolutely no reason why the Marlins could not have afforded to both sign Gregg and keep the pick. While the first three points cover why trading the pick for Morris and Gregg is a bad use of resources, it was an entirely unnecessary cost-benefit analysis in the first place. As leaked financial documents have shown, the Marlins are quite a profitable enterprise, and that was before they scammed the city of Miami into building them a new ballpark to increase revenues even further.
The Marlins payroll ranks 29th in MLB, but more tellingly, they are $30 million below the Tampa Bay Rays, who come in 28th in spending this year. The Rays play in a terrible ballpark and average 3,000 fewer fans per game than the Marlins, and yet they still found $30 million more to spend than Jeffry Loria’s organization this year. And then when the Marlins show some promise, the front office is forced to finance the acquisition of a (psuedo) roster upgrade by dumping a valuable pick to keep the ledger tilted solely toward the owner’s profits?
Even when the Marlins are not an embarrassment on the field, they somehow find a way to remain one off of it. You can’t simultaneously argue that slashing payroll and going young is in the best interests of the organization’s future and then squander future assets because the owner isn’t willing to invest one dime more than necessary to upgrade the team in the short-term. The Marlins decisions over the years have created a picture of an organization that is run as an ATM for the Lorias first and foremost, with the baseball operations department being allowed to make moves so long as they don’t interfere with that priority. Moves like this only reinforce that perception. Moves like this are why MLB should be ashamed of the fact that they continue to let Jeffrey Loria own one of their franchises.
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