Major League Baseball's trade deadline is still more than a month away, but already the rumor mill has begun to hum. No player has generated as much early noise as Miami Marlins pitcher Ricky Nolasco. The 30-year-old Nolasco is certain to be dealt, for a number of reasons, among them that he is a proven middle-of-the-rotation starter, he is by far the highest-paid player on an infamously miserly, last place club and he is due to become a free agent after the season. Nolasco's name has been linked with at least a half-dozen suitors, including the Orioles, the Yankees and the entirety of the National League West.
The market's biggest potential prize, however -- both physically and otherwise -- can be found across the Marlins clubhouse. He is Giancarlo Stanton, the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Californian who is likely to reach his 24th birthday in November having hit more home runs -- he currently has 100 -- than anyone of that age since Alex Rodriguez. While Nolasco would represent a solid addition to the rotation of any would-be contender, Stanton would be something else, particularly in this newly power-starved era: a franchise-changer, and perhaps the most significant asset a team has added in-season in years.
Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria is known for his fire sales, yet Loria has not wavered from his stance that Stanton is not going anywhere anytime soon. Loria is besotted with Stanton for the same reasons that his competitors covet him, and they extend beyond his rare power. Stanton will earn just $537,000 this season, and he is not due to become a free agent until after 2016, meaning that even after he receives what will undoubtedly be significant raises starting this winter, when he is arbitration-eligible for the first time, he will still be under team control at a sub-market wage for a minimum of three more years.
Even the Marlins, who through Thursday were an MLB-worst 27-50, might themselves be contenders three years from now, and two competing executives contacted by SI.com expect Loria to hang on to Stanton through the July 31 deadline, and possibly for the long haul.
"Not sure why they would trade him now -- you need power to be good," said one. "It's an academic exercise. If you trade young power now, you are then left looking for it in the draft for the next couple of years, and probably not being able to find it."
"I highly doubt he will be moved before the deadline," said another. "If he's traded at all, it seems like more of an off-season move, since the return will be so heavy."
Other rival executives believe differently. "I think high probability," said one scouting director of Stanton's chances of being moved. "He wants out and will not be there long-term, and they know it."
While the reasons why the Marlins would want to keep Stanton are clear-cut -- he's young, cheap and commits battery on baseballs -- the reasons they might want to trade him immediately are more complicated. For one, he will likely never bring back a package that is as rich as he would right now, which one of the executives said would begin with "something equitable to two top 100-type prospects." With every year, and even every day, that he draws nearer to free agency, he becomes marginally less attractive. Also, as the scouting director suggested, Stanton -- who expressed his discontent as he watched a once promising team be disassembled around him last year -- is extremely unlikely to sign a long-term deal with Miami, even if one were offered, though he very well might with a new club.
Then there is the matter of Stanton's drop in production so far in 2013 (while he hit a home run every 14.2 at-bats between 2010 and 2012, he is currently hitting one every 19.1 at-bats) and perhaps more significantly of his propensity for getting injured. He missed a month of games last season after undergoing surgery on his right knee, and he's sat out nearly a month and a half already this year due to a badly strained right hamstring. For now, suitors still regard those issues as short-term blips, but continuations or recurrences of them might quickly change that perception.
Another motivation for the Marlins to deal Stanton might be a desire to diversify the crops in their fecund farm system, which Baseball America ranks as the league's fifth-best. They are currently stacked with outfield prospects. The only thing more impressive than 22-year-old rookie Marcell Ozuna's debut -- he is hitting .298, with two home runs, 25 RBIs and an OPS of .768 -- might be his pre-game dietary choices, and behind him, in Double-A, are Christian Yelich and Jake Marisnick, who were respectively ranked Nos. 15 and 64 on BA's pre-season Top-100 list.
In the view of one scout, "None of those guys, or any combination of them, has close to the power that Stanton does," but still, the Marlins have needs that a trade of Stanton could fill. They could use future starting pitchers to pair with 20-year-old Jose Fernandez, who looks like nothing short of an ace, and infielders and catchers, too. Several potential partners would likely fight to thrust packages at Miami that include at least two highly-rated players. The Pirates, who on Wednesday pulled into a tie with the Cardinals for the majors' best record but rank 20th in runs scored, could offer pitcher Jameson Taillon and shortstop Alen Hanson. The Red Sox could offer third baseman Xander Bogaerts and pitcher Matt Barnes. The Rangers could offer shortstop Jurickson Profar and third baseman Mike Olt.
One of the reasons why a return for Stanton would be "enormous," as one exec said, is that his contractual status will not limit his suitors only to contenders. Even the rebuilding Mets -- at the moment just four games up on the Marlins in the NL East -- could dangle pitcher Zack Wheeler and catcher Travis d'Arnaud, and the scuffling Mariners could offer their own pitcher-catcher combination in Taijuan Walker and Mike Zunino. In fact, virtually every team has reason to desire Stanton, and that demand will likely drive his price even higher.
For all of the aspersions that have been cast in Loria's direction, it cannot be said that he is anything but shrewd. He also does not have to contend with another reason why most owners would be disinclined to trade a 23-year-old slugger, which is the public relations aspect of it. There's really no such thing as a meaningful P.R. hit when your new, still-sparkling home stadium looks like this on most nights.
It is likely that Loria and the beleaguered members of his front office, including president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest, genuinely do not want to part with Giancarlo Stanton. But they have done the intelligent thing by letting it be known that they are unmotivated sellers, as that is the type of seller -- particularly when what they have to sell is as unique and desirable a property as Stanton -- that sometimes receives an offer that cannot be refused. Two elite prospects might not be enough, but three of them? Four? Every player has a price.