As far as I'm concerned, there are only three hard and fast rules in baseball. First, the Cardinals always win. Our hated rivals have only one losing season this century, and they have won at least 70 games in every full season since 1978. Much like the Green Bay Packers, the Cardinals seemingly alternate between winning a ton and winning an average amount. They just don't lose.
Second, the Yankees will always spend lots of money. This likely needs no explanation. The Yankees have had a top-two MLB payroll every year this century and the Bombers spent over six times their budget in the most recent international free agent signing period. The Yankees throw cash around.
Third, the Marlins do not spend money, at least not under Jeffrey Loria. The Marlins have featured a bottom-five payroll in all but one year since 2006 under Loria's ownership. That one year -- 2012 -- happened to coincide with the Marlins opening the new Marlins Park amid promises from Loria that he would spend heavily to finance a contender. Of course, the Marlins dropped from seventh in payroll in 2012 to 29th in 2013, chopping an astounding $81,736,100 from the payroll. Loria just doesn't spend.
As an aside, I despise the Marlins primarily thanks to a few fateful days in October 2003.
Somewhat paradoxically, the Marlins actually acquired a pair of starting pitchers this past winter that caused their payroll to jump $20 million to a still-lowest $68,479,000 as of Opening Day. Jeffrey Loria hates spending money on the Marlins payroll, and I'm certain that he hates spending money on a loser even more. Accordingly, those two starting pitchers are the focus of this article, especially in light of the Miami Herald's Clark Spencer reporting that the Fish have placed these two on the market.
The first pitcher, former Padre and Red Mat Latos, was acquired in exchange for pitching prospect Anthony DeSclafani and catching prospect Chad Wallach. For reference sake, Baseball Prospectus graded DeSclafani as a 7th/8th inning reliever who could settle in as a No. 4 starter whereas Wallach wasn't on their radar despite great on-base skills in the low minors.
Latos began his career with the Padres, debuting in 2009 after just nine starts above the A-ball level. Though he struggled in his 10 debut starts, Latos immediately emerged as a force in his first full season, totaling 15.9 WAR from 2010-13 throwing two seasons apiece for the Padres and Reds. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, the injury bug bit the formerly durable ace in a big way in 2014. After making at least 31 starts each year from 2010-13, Latos made just 16 appearances in 2014. Even more alarmingly, the velocity on his fastball, curveball, and changeup all dropped at least two miles per hour from his career averages and the season before. Red flags were going off everywhere as Latos missed time with a flexor strain in his elbow. At the end of the 2013 season, despite having started a full slate of games, Latos underwent surgery to have bone chips removed from his pitching elbow. Despite the operation, Latos was slated to be the Reds' Game One starter had they qualified for the National League Division Series. There's certainly some toughness there.
However, the injuries continued into 2014. He had knee surgery to repair cartilage in February, missed half of the season, and then underwent what can only be described as a terrifying procedure: stem cell surgery on his pitching elbow to regrow tissue. I wouldn't have touched him with a ten-foot pole at that point.
To his credit, Latos has recovered in a big way. While his 4.90 ERA over 14 starts is rather unsightly, some of his velocity has returned and his peripheral numbers are largely in line with his career norms with the exception of an absurdly low strand rate. The pitcher with a 3.41 career FIP sports a 3.50 FIP in 2015; he's basically back to being Mat Latos.
Latos' opening start of the year was particularly awful as he surrendered seven earned runs while recording just two outs. Since then, his numbers look very strong: over 74⅔ innings, Latos has a 4.10 ERA, 3.43 FIP, 8.08 K/9, 2.65 BB/9, and 0.84 HR/9. He has pitched like Kyle Hendricks since his season-opening meltdown. Latos is also just 27, suggesting that he should be plenty strong the rest of the way. He is making $9.4 million in his final season of arbitration and he will be a free agent at the end of the season.
At the other end of the career spectrum is Dan Haren. Haren, who came up with the Cardinals and moved to Oakland in the one truly disastrous Cardinals trade this century, has enjoyed an excellent career, a career which appears to be winding down as the 34-year-old righty now sports an 86 mile per hour fastball after working 91-92 for much of his career. Nevertheless, Haren's four-pitch mix remains tough on hitters with his fastball-cutter combination leading to a 3.34 ERA and a 4.15 FIP. Haren has given up a ton of home runs, but he has done so for years, surviving on the strength of tremendous control: Haren hasn't issued even 2.0 BB/9 for five years and his 1.63 BB/9 this year is the third best mark of his career. Haren survives on contact, though strangely generates very few groundballs. Haren is making $10.0 million and will also be a free agent at season's end.
It also bears mentioning that 29-year-old Tom Koehler will be arbitration eligible for the first time after the 2015 season. A late bloomer, Koehler enjoyed a decent debut in 2013 and followed it up with a nearly average season in 2014, totaling 1.6 WAR and a peripheral-supported 3.81 ERA over 191⅓ innings. Unfortunately for Koehler, his strikeouts have dropped while his homers have jumped in 2015. Still, his powerful four-pitch arsenal could find a home in the fifth spot in the Cubs' rotation or as the mid-term swingman. It's doubtful that Loria will want to pay a pitcher of Koehler's ilk even his modest arbitration salary.
The Marlins have slipped far enough out of the race -- they are 11 games out of a playoff spot -- so as to become obvious sellers. Unfortunately for them, their primary tradable assets aren't good enough to command a big return. That said, all of these pitchers have enough value to command a real piece. Let's take a look at some ideas.
Proposal #1: Marlins trade SP Mat Latos to Cubs for SP Jen-Ho Tseng and SP Trevor Clifton
In my eyes, this would be a good return for the Marlins. While Tseng has struggled some at High-A and Clifton is still quite raw, both arms have what it takes to reach the Majors as starting pitchers. Tseng haw a low ceiling, however, and Clifton has a lot of development to go. This is somewhat comparable to the Cincinnati package except that no MLB-ready piece heads back to Miami.
Proposal #2: Marlins trade SP Mat Latos and OF Isael Soto to Cubs for 1B Dan Vogelbach
Perhaps the Marlins love Justin Bour's inexplicably hot debut, but I doubt they view him as their everyday first baseman going forward. Vogelbach would fill that role presuming they were content to have his disastrous glove in the lineup. I think Vogelbach is probably more valuable than 15 Latos starts at this point, so the Marlins have to throw in Soto to get the deal done. Soto made his full-season debut this year, jumping over short-season ball. Unfortunately, his .125/.164/.141 batting line was, umm, not great. He's a projectable, 18-year-old lefty outfielder with a simple swing and enough skills to be an average regular in six years if everything clicks.
Proposal #3: Marlins trade SP Dan Haren to Cubs for 3B Christian Villanueva and SP Jonathan Martinez
Haren is more affected by his attached salary than Latos is. Accordingly, this isn't much of a return for Miami. Still, Martinez gives them something to work with and Martin Prado is a free agent after the 2016 season with no viable option at third behind him in the system.
Proposal #4: Marlins trade SP Tom Koehler to Cubs for SP Pierce Johnson
This one is just plain weird as I could see both teams saying yes and both teams saying no. Koehler has the raw stuff to be a useful starter, but at 29, it's probably not happening. Johnson has added a cutter in an effort to stick in the rotation and comes with years of minimum salaries, but he also has a lengthy injury history. This one would just be plain weird.
The next one? The next one is the bombshell that exists exclusively in the hypothetical realm.
Proposal #5: Marlins trade SP Jose Fernandez to Cubs for C/OF Kyle Schwarber and SS Javier Baez
Take a deep breath before reading on. Ready? OK.
Fernandez is a generational talent on the mound. He did just undergo Tommy John surgery, but if his return is any indication, there isn't a whole lot of rust on that arm. Because the Marlins promoted Fernandez on Opening Day of his rookie season, he will be eligible for arbitration already in 2016. He's got a chance to cost something like $35 million for his arbitration years, so he won't exactly be cheap. But Fernandez has the chance to compete for Cy Young awards during his career and he doesn't turn 23 until deadline day. Wowzers.
In a Schwarber-Baez combination, the Cubs send the Marlins a duo that only the Dodgers and possibly the Red Sox and Pirates can match. Marlins GM/manager Dan Jennings might dismiss this out of hand. Then again, he may look at the return and figure that the opportunity to surround Giancarlo Stanton with a pair of impact bats -- enter risk caveats here -- is too good to pass up. I doubt it. But I think the Schwarber-Baez combination at least gets Jennings to entertain the conversation.
The Marlins line up rather nicely with the Cubs as trade partners. Thankfully they don't have Juan Pierre to throw our way anymore.
The first four trades listed above don't do much to move the needle for the 2015 Cubs but they should help at a palatable cost. I'd entertain any of those offers, though I'd prefer to use Vogelbach in a bigger deal for a more impactful player, be it this month or in the coming year.
The fifth proposal? I've got to keep thinking about that one.