To start with the obvious, this offseason has been one of the slowest in recent memory. To this point, only five free agent contracts have exceeded a total value of $30 million. By this point last offseason, 18 players had inked deals of that level. The trade market has at least been more riveting, seeing Giancarlo Stanton, Evan Longoria, Gerrit Cole, Dee Gordon, Aledmys Diaz, Marcell Ozuna, Chase Headley, Stephen Piscotty, among others change teams in various swaps. Most of these deals happened in December, however, and most of January has once again been dominated by the rumor mill.
On Thursday, however, two of the most intriguing offseason stories worked together to change that. Around 6pm ET, Craig Mish and Ken Rosenthal were among those to report a blockbuster agreement between the Brewers and the Marlins. Outfielder Christian Yelich will go to the Brewers and leave Miami, who will in return receive four prospects: outfielder Lewis Brinson, outfielder Monte Harrison, infielder Isan Diaz, and right-handed pitcher Jordan Yamamoto.
Looking at this agreement, I believe it is a true win-win deal. The Brewers add Yelich to an already-formidable lineup, and as I type this, word is trickling out that they have also come to terms with former Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain, and now seek to move Domingo Santana and/or Brett Phillips in a deal for a pitcher. In turn, the Marlins continue to stick to their path of rebuilding under the new Derek Jeter regime, and deserve due credit for that. It seems people do not want to hear it, but this franchise has long been mired in turmoil, and what Jeter, Denbo, and the others in the new front office are doing is a necessarily painful process for the Marlins to return to sustainability, consistency, and annual contention. When Jeffrey Loria & Co. were in charge, the organization seemed to change direction every one or two seasons. I remember the moves to get Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Omar Infante, Edward Mujica, Heath Bell, and Ozzie Guillen as vividly as I remember the Blue Jays blockbuster and trading Nathan Eovaldi, much like I remember the day their former GM was hired as manager to replace Mike Redmond.
Unfortunately, just as it appeared the franchise seemed to be putting it together, two straws broke the proverbial camel’s back. One was the ill-considered risk to sign franchise cornerstone Giancarlo Stanton to a historic 13-year, $325 million contract. The other, devastatingly, was the tragic September day in 2016 that saw Jose Fernandez, an exciting budding superstar, killed in a boating accident. When this new ownership and regime took the reins, it was clear that changes had to be made to the roster. Clinging to the status quo by maintaining the exact same lineup would have made necessary additions to the pitching staff almost impossible. A team whose second-best starting pitcher has a 1.54 HR/9, 4.58 FIP, .250 Batting-Average Against, and 1.30 WHIP (Walks+Hits per Inning Pitched) is not just one or two signings from playoff contention. I’m sorry. With their limited financial resources, it would have taken trades (yes, plural) from their strength (hitting) in order to bolster the rotation and/or bullpen. “Robbing Peter to pay Paul”, as they say.
This all necessitated trades such as the one we saw today, that allow the Marlins to commit to following teams such as the Astros, Cubs, Twins, Nationals, Padres, and Diamondbacks. It is not a quick fix in today’s MLB. Houston, defending world champions, is less than five years removed from three consecutive seasons in which they didn’t win 60 games. The Twins won 85 games this year for the first time since 2010. The Nationals, failed to have one winning season from 2004-2011, but have finished under 86 wins just once since that span ended. The Padres get an incomplete, but not long after being mired in a similar situation with financial constraints and an unimpressive farm system, the future in San Diego is one of the brightest in this league. Why has it begun to work out for the aforementioned clubs? Simple: they choose a direction, architected a plan, and the respective baseball brain trust in each organization committed to its execution. Lest we forget, the same Gary Denbo under whose watchful eye the current Yankees’ roster and farm system were constructed now sits in the Miami war room. In trading Yelich, Miami netted four prospects, each of whom come with his own intrigue.
The most well-known name is the high-upside righty-hitting outfielder Lewis Brinson. Even with his power and impressive speed, I am not convinced he ends up being the most valuable piece in this deal, especially if he ultimately moves to left field, which some scouts believe could happen if his instincts in center don’t improve and/or his injury issues continue to get in the way. That being said, his .331/.400/.562/.962 at Triple-A can’t be ignored, regardless of having played in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Because of this, it is particularly likely that we won’t truly have an accurate read on Brinson’s future until he advances to Double-A. His righty/lefty splits in 2017 were particularly curious. Despite hitting from the right side, he hit .353/.424/.629/1.054 in 224 at-bats when facing same-sided pitchers, compared to just .267/.325/.360/.685 against southpaws.
Monte Harrison is the second player in Miami’s return. He is a special outfielder with an elite arm, and at just 21 years old, time is every bit on his side. He needs to work on his swing, as his timing (especially when down in the count) and tendency to swing down on the ball have contributed to him being strikeout-prone (since graduating from rookie ball, he has accumulated 317 strikeouts in 248 games). His fielding profile would play very well in right field, but scouts believe he has the range and physical ability to remain in center for the long haul.
Next, we come to the lone wolf sleeper prospect in this deal: Jordan Yamamoto. His low-nineties heater doesn’t keep many opposing batters up at night, and he doesn’t have an overwhelming stature, checking in at 6’0” and under 200 pounds. That all being said, in an era dominated by the triple-digit gas, the curveball in his arsenal is an intriguing one to me, although, as Eric Copenhagen points out, it may not play up as well for him due to his lower arm slot and command issues. He will only be 22 next year, and if his 2.27 ERA, .213 BAA, 1.01 WHIP, and 103/23 K/BB as a starter don’t translate following a promotion to Double-A, or if he can’t nail down his changeup that scouts believe is holding him back, his heater-curve combo could play up as a relief option for Milwaukee in 2019/2020.
Finally, we have the middle-infield youngster Isan Diaz. I’m not as excited about Diaz as some others. Like Harrison, he has dealt with strikeout issues since his promotion from rookie ball two years ago; in 245 games across Class-A and Class-A(Adv), he has 269 strikeouts and, despite remaining patient at the plate, his OBP in each of the last three seasons has steadily declined, from .436, to .358, to .334. Literally seeing the ball may have been a major issue for him this year, as in 27 day games, he posted an impressive slash line of .314/.398/.539/.938, compared to a poor .189/.312/.317/.629 at night. This shows an interesting and stark contrast to last year, where his .264/.367/.472/.839 line during the day was remarkably comparable to his .264/.355/.469/.824 numbers in night games. Scouts believe there is yet much potential for Diaz, but his lack of dominance at low-level of minors makes him more of a gamble for Jeter and Denbo than perhaps others in this deal.
It’s safe to say that the Marlins’ window of contention is a few years from opening, and with most of their old core now elsewhere, it won’t be until Realmuto and others (potentially Bour) are moved that a more accurate timeline will become clear. Once that does happen, the clock will begin ticking for Gary Denbo to prove that this long-term plan was worth the restlessness felt among Marlins fans who legitimately pondered whether the team upgraded by swapping Loria for the new regime.
Prospects, much like the Marlins’ plan, will take a while to prove whether or not they will pan out. But Miami baseball fans should take comfort in the fact that this front office is following a model akin to those of other teams that have seen proven returns.
Now dealing for the Miami Marlins, number two: Derek Jeter. Number two.