May 25, 2024

For the Marlins, will the return in the Luis Arraez trade make sense in the end?

Any trade in which a team lands a two-time batting champion while lowering its payroll is worthy of further examination. San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller pulled off that trick, as only he can, with his stunning acquisition of Luis Arraez.

Perhaps no GM is as adept at collecting talent as Preller, even if that talent does not always fit together. But the Miami Marlins’ end of the deal might be even more intriguing than the Padres’, and not simply because of how quickly — and outrageously — the Marlins quit on 2024.

Marlins GM Peter Bendix was correct when he said his team is unlikely to reach the postseason. But talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Marlins ran off Kim Ng, the GM who orchestrated their first playoff appearance over a full season in 20 years. They signed only one free agent, shortstop Tim Anderson, who owns the game’s sixth-lowest OPS. They essentially agreed to part with the reigning NL Manager of the Year, Skip Schumaker, who after getting the team to remove the club option on his contract surely is counting down the days to his liberation.

Players’ careers are short. Every season is precious. Marlins owner Bruce Sherman hired Bendix from the Tampa Bay Rays, wanting to duplicate the success of Stuart Sternberg’s thrifty operation across the state. Someone tell Sherman the Rays never go into full retreat like this. Only twice since 2008 have they won fewer than 80 games in a full season.

Which brings us to Arraez for reliever Woo-Suk Go and three prospects — outfielder Dillon Head, the 25th overall pick in the 2023 draft; outfielder Jakob Marsee, the most recent MVP of the Arizona Fall League; and first baseman/outfielder Nathan Martorella. Only that wasn’t the entirety of the deal. The Marlins also included nearly $8 million, paying down Arraez’s 2024 salary to all but the prorated minimum, and took on the remainder of Go’s two-year, $4.5 million contract. The approach was rather odd for a team that always cries poor. But Bendix’s goal was to boost the quality of the return.

The trade deadline is almost three months away. Bendix, in his first year as a head of baseball operations, said he feared the same deal might not have been available if he waited. According to a team source, he explored deals for Arraez in the offseason and into the season and believed he had a good understanding of the market. But if he had stayed patient and broadcast to the other 29 teams his willingness to cover virtually all of Arraez’s salary, might he have extracted more?

At least one other team, the Kansas City Royals, was in contact with the Marlins about Arraez last week, according to major-league sources who were granted anonymity for their candor. Those talks, however, never advanced beyond the preliminary stage. The Padres’ pursuit of Arraez dated to the offseason (the Seattle Mariners also restated their longstanding interest then). In the end, Bendix determined he could not “walk past” the San Diego offer.

It’s always risky to judge prospect-driven trades in real time. The Kansas City Royals were almost universally ripped in December 2012 for parting with top prospect Wil Myers while acquiring James Shields and Wade Davis. That deal helped lay the foundation for KC’s back-to-back World Series appearances. The New York Mets were widely mocked in December 2018 for including top prospect Jarred Kelenic in a trade for Edwin Díaz and Robinson Canó. The perception of that deal changed markedly over time, and if Kelenic ever figures it out, could shift again.

The Athletic’s Keith Law called the Marlins’ return “an impressive haul.” Baseball Trade Values considered the deal a “major overpay” by the Padres, based upon its calculations of each player’s surplus value, or the excess of value beyond what the players will be paid.

Many if not most in the industry disagreed with those opinions. The view of those dissenters was that the deal lacked — pick your favorite scouting term — a “dude,” a “needle mover,” a “carrying piece.” The Marlins, they say, opted for quantity over quality, 24 years of club control over less than two with Arraez. The Rays and other teams often follow similar models. And it’s a fine model, as long as the prospects you acquire can actually play.

Preller routinely bundles lower-impact players to entice teams eager to collect future value. He did it to the Rays in December 2020 when he acquired Blake Snell for four prospects who have yet to amount to much — Luis Patiño, Francisco Mejia, Blake Hunt and Cole Wilcox. The strategy, however, does not always work. The Mike Clevinger/Greg Allen trade with the Cleveland Guardians in August 2020 cost the Padres a future star (Josh Naylor), and several other major-league parts (Gabriel Arias, Austin Hedges, Owen Miller and Cal Quantrill).

And the three prospects Preller dealt for Arraez? Head, while immensely talented, is considered high-risk, high-reward. Marsee is a good defender who controls the strike zone and with an uptick of power could become a bonafide regular, or as one executive put it, a “diet Jung Hoo Lee.” Martorella shows offensive potential but is a first-base/DH type. As with all prospects, the exact career paths each will take is anyone’s guess.

Another problem in assessing the Arraez deal is the difficulty of assessing Arraez. As I mentioned on the Fox broadcast Saturday, many in the industry do not perceive Arraez the way fans might think. He offers little power, making it almost essential he maintains his .325 career average. He is below-average at second base, the wrong type of offensive profile for first. Whatever versatility he offers — he also has played third and left — is negated by his overall lack of fielding ability.

The negative view of Arraez is the one spit out by the models, which in the case of the Rays, and presumably now the Marlins, place a high value on defense, perhaps overly high. The valuation also factors in his $10.6 million salary, and the raise he will receive in his final year of arbitration next season. But the assessment of Arraez in a vacuum does not necessarily account for how he might benefit specific teams. The 2023 Marlins, for example. And perhaps the 2024 Padres.

The Padres were seeking a left-handed hitter who would lengthen their lineup, get on base for their power bats and help increase the pressure they put on opponents. Deep in quality defensive infielders, they did not seem overly concerned with Arraez’s fielding deficiencies. They can use Arraez as a DH, as they did Saturday in his first game with the club. Or they can play him in the field and give one of their other infielders a DH day, as they did Sunday with second baseman Xander Bogaerts.

The trade, though, is not a sure thing for the Padres, either. Right-hander Joe Musgrove went on the injured list Sunday with right elbow inflammation. Preller, who might need to reach the postseason to save his job, could regret giving up prospect depth if his rotation keeps taking hits. But just when you think he has depleted his supply of young talent, he always seems to come up with more players to trade.

Preller this season will pay a two-time batting champion less than $600,000. The Marlins will try to salvage Go, a Korean free agent who has yet to appear in the majors, while hyping their newest prospects. They hedged their bets by acquiring bulk. They think they satisfied their desire for surplus value. If you’re going to punt on a season the way they’re punting, that value had better materialize. Otherwise, it’s all just a shell game. A waste.

(Top photo of Luis Arraez: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)