A couple of days ago, ESPN's Buster Olney laid out the case for why the Miami Marlins need to trade outfielder Giancarlo Stanton now while his value is at its highest. Leading the article was a gem of a quote from Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria about how he attended a food and wine festival recently and got a universally positive response from '20 to 30 people' about his November fire sale. He claims that the negative feedback has stopped, and just wants to get support for the Marlins this year.
First of all, if there is any doubt that Loria has overtaken Donald Sterling as the worst owner in North American professional sports, I think that the events of this winter have laid that to rest. Loria, not content with gutting one franchise and murdering professional baseball in one city (don't forget, he originally owned the Montreal Expos), apparently feels the need to pull that trick twice. He even upped the degree of difficulty by foisting an expensive taxpayer-funded stadium on the residents of South Florida. Loria has proven time and again that he cares little for the quality of the product he puts on the field, even if he did stumble into a World Series championship during his first year of ownership in 2003. By blowing up last year's team and trading several of his biggest stars for roughly forty cents on the dollar, he left the Marlins with one bona fide quality major leaguer; Stanton.
Of course, Stanton was incredibly pissed after the trade that sent Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and Mark Buehrle to Toronto, saying as much on his Twitter feed and removing the picture of himself in Marlins gear. He stood little chance of getting traded because he happens to still be a year away from arbitration, meaning that he will make roughly half a million dollars this season, chump change for one of the best young players in the game. Take a look at his numbers through 373 career games thus far: .270/.350/.553, 93 home runs, 81 doubles, 140 OPS+. That's in a little more than two full seasons' worth of games. Also, he just turned 23 in November.
So here are the things we know:
1) Jeffrey Loria doesn't like paying high-salaried players.
2) Giancarlo Stanton wants out of Miami.
3) Stanton is going to keep getting better given his age.
4) If Stanton won't sign an extension with the Marlins, he will take the team to arbitration after the 2013 season.
Okay, so what might that arbitration look like? From ownership's side, I think we can safely assume that Loria will try and lowball Stanton at least a little. Let's say he puts forth $5 million as his offer. Stanton, meanwhile, has every incentive to seek something closer to his full worth, and zero incentive to cut his owner any financial slack. What might be a good comparison? How about Ryan Howard during the winter of 2007-8, when he had two-plus years of service time, a Rookie of the Year Award, and an MVP? Howard got a record $10 million for the 2008 season. Through the 2007 season, in 410 games, Howard had amassed a .291/.397/.610 line with 129 home runs and a 151 OPS+. Now factor in that Stanton should equal or pass Howard's counting numbers at the time over the course of this season and draw his slash line and OPS+ up closer to Howard's totals. Also factor in that even then Howard had a pronounced platoon split, crushing righties but getting owned by southpaws (except during his 2006 MVP season, when he hit a very respectable.279/.364/.558, still a far cry from his absurd .331/.453/.711 against right-handers that year). Stanton, meanwhile, is an equal-opportunity masher, hitting .269/.349/.545 against righties and .276/.354/.577 against lefties. Factor in that Howard played his home games in an extreme hitters' park, whilst Stanton is stuck in a strong pitchers' park. Then factor in that he plays a solid right field, as opposed to Howard's mediocre-to-terrible first base. And THEN factor in that he will be almost exactly four years younger than Howard when he seeks his first arbitration deal. Wait, we're still not done. You still have to factor in the general inflation in salaries over the past six years, even if luxury taxes are such a real thing now that even the Yankees care about them.
Whew, that was a lot of factoring. Okay, now that you've sorted all that out, it shouldn't be surprising if Stanton were to ask for, say, $13 million for the 2014 season. I think it's all but certain that an independent arbitrator is going to side with Stanton in this hypothetical scenario, for all the reasons listed above. And guess what? He will only get more expensive. I would guess something like $17 million and $20 million for his other two arbitration awards assuming he stays healthy, after which he would hit free agency having just turned 27. Yikes. So if you're Loria and you don't want to pay that much in salary to one player, but you want to maximize his value, you had better start now.
Trouble is, everyone else knows this, too. As Jonathan Bernhardt detailed, while each and every one of the 29 teams would love to have Stanton, only four teams have the right combination of position space, payroll flexibility, and prospect depth to make a non-insulting trade with the Marlins: Baltimore, Texas, St. Louis, and the Mets, with Texas as the only realistic destination. I would argue that the Cubs and Reds might belong on that list, certainly over the fiscally irresponsible Mets. Bernhardt assumes that the Marlins would have more of the leverage in any potential deal, with Jurickson Profar AND Mike Olt probably necessary to begin such a trade conversation. But here's the thing; if you're Texas, and you know that you can probably put the best offer out there, why include Profar at all? Why not offer Olt, Martin Perez, and two lesser prospects (let's say Luis Sardinas and Luke Jackson), and then just leave that offer out there? Barring a massive and unexpected change, the relationship between Stanton and the Marlins front office isn't going to get any warmer, which means they're only going to get more desperate to trade him for as much value as possible. And the only other teams that could top an offer of two top-100 prospects plus two more guys while a) not mortgaging their future and b) having the means to sign Stanton to an extension are the Cubs and Cardinals, with an outside chance from the Reds or Red Sox. Let's compare possible offers between all four teams, considering that they will be competitive offers but not necessarily the best ones:
Rangers: 3B Mike Olt, LHP Martin Perez, SS Luis Sardinas, RHP Luke Jackson
Cubs: OF Jorge Soler, RHP Arodys Vizcaino, RHP Paul Blackburn, SS Arismendy Alcantara
Cardinals: RHP Joe Kelly, RHP Carlos Martinez, 3B Carson Kelly, OF Anthony Garcia
Red Sox: OF Jackie Bradley, RHP Matt Barnes, 3B Garin Cecchini, LHP Brian Johnson
Reds: RHP Daniel Corcino, LHP Tony Cingrani, OF Jesse Winker, 3B Tanner Rahier
Missing from each group is that team's top one or two prospects. All of these teams might fancy themselves contenders this year except the Cubs (and maybe Red Sox, but just about anything is possible in the AL East this year), so they will be in a better position by the All-Star break to evaluate and see if they are willing to up the ante a little in order to make something happen. Or not. Barring injuries, neither the Cardinals nor the Reds (who just so happen to be in the same division) need Stanton's production immediately; with Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran holding down the corners in St. Louis (with Oscar Taveras ready to join them whenever) and the Jay Bruce/Shin-Soo Choo/Ryan Ludwick troika in Cincinnati, those teams are comfortably set for 2013. Sure, Stanton would be an upgrade, particularly for the Reds, but a relatively marginal one. Besides, the Reds (who play in the smallest MLB market) likely can't afford to pay Stanton AND Joey Votto AND Aroldis Chapman. And the Red Sox have a less tantalizing hoard of prospects to deal from (although no major financial commitments beyond 2015). Still, it's hard to envision their new management team abandon a "build from within" philosophy within a year of their mega-trade with the Dodgers. Again, that leaves the Rangers, facing a drop-off in offensive production from their outfielders after the departure of Josh Hamilton. I think that the bidder(s), particularly the Rangers, actually hold more of the leverage in this situation, and anybody's offer for Stanton should really only drop from here on out, barring catastrophic injuries. This will be the most interesting potential trade scenario for the next year, so get ready to hear more about it in the future.