On Friday, a National League team currently occupying a playoff spot and desperate for rotation help pulled off a seven-player trade that added two established starters in exchange for two top prospects. That all sounds pretty exciting, but the deal that sent righthanders Andrew Cashner and Colin Rea from the Padres to the Marlins is anything but.
Two undeniable things: The Marlins are serious contenders—they enter their weekend series against the Cardinals tied with St. Louis for the second wild-card spot in the NL—and they needed to acquire starting pitching. Miami has struggled all season to find a reliable fifth starter; the men tried in that spot—Justin Nicolino, Jarred Cosart, Paul Clemens, Jose Urena and Kendry Flores—have combined to post a 5.12 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in 21 starts. The rest of the rotation isn't doing much better. Over the weekend, the Marlins lost lefty Wei-Yin Chen to a sprained left elbow, the severity of which has yet to be determined. Chen was lousy even when healthy, however, with a 79 ERA+ in 19 starts, and third starter Tom Koehler has been mediocre at best (95 ERA+, 1.47 WHIP, 1.65 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 21 starts). Worst of all, the Marlins are facing the reality of the 180-inning limit they placed on ace Jose Fernandez at the start of the year; at 125 2/3 already, he would appear to have only enough innings left to make just seven more starts.
Cashner and Rea give the Marlins two much-needed warm bodies to insert in their rotation for the stretch run, but it’s not clear that either necessarily represents an upgrade. Rea will replace that litany of fifth starters—most directly Cosart, who is going to the Padres in this trade—and has posted a 4.98 ERA (79 ERA+), 1.46 WHIP and 1.73 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18 starts and one relief appearance this year. That’s technically better than what the Marlins’ fifth starters have done this season, but by so small a margin as to barely matter. Cashner, meanwhile, has posted a 4.76 ERA (82 ERA+) in 16 starts, spent time on the disabled list with a strained neck and has a higher FIP (4.94) than the man he’s replacing, Chen (4.57).
For the privilege of potentially getting comparable performances out of different bodies, the Marlins are sending to San Diego two of their top six prospects, per MLB.com’s recently updated rankings, in first baseman Josh Naylor (the 15th pick in the 2015 draft) and fireballing righthander Luis Castillo. Also included in the trade is righthanded reliever Carter Capps, who had Tommy John surgery on March 8 and is unlikely to make his Padres debut until the middle of next season, and control-challenged 25-year-old Tayron Guerrero, who has thrown just two major league innings and whom San Diego bumped down to Double A in late May.
But wait, it gets less impressive! The Marlins have one of the weakest farm systems in the majors—one that was unanimously ranked 29th out of 30 teams before the season by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and ESPN. Miami was one of the only teams that failed to place a prospect on any of the major preseason top-100 lists, and Naylor just barely snuck onto Baseball America’s midseason list—which includes neither preseason prospects who were in the majors on June 21 nor 2016 draftees or international signees—at No. 100. So while Naylor and Castillo may be top prospects in the Marlins' system, they are far from blue-chippers.
Naylor is a designated hitter in a first baseman’s body, a bat-only player who has hit .269/.317/.430 in the Sally League this year and just .212/.284/.343 against his fellow lefties. He just turned 19 in late June, which makes that line in his full-season debut look more impressive (and may help explain the bizarre incident in which he stabbed a teammate as part of an ill-conceived prank earlier that month). Indeed, scouts remain high on his hitting tools, but he is far away from his somewhat limited potential as a possible middle-of-the-order bat who is a liability out of the batter’s box. Castillo, meanwhile, is 23 and just converted to starting in the middle of last season. He has excelled in high A ball this season thanks to an ability to suppress walks and home runs, but he, like Cashner, hasn’t produced the high strikeout rates his upper-90s velocity would suggest, and it’s not a given that he’ll remain a starter in the upper minors.
Caveats aside, there is clear upside for both prospects, and the Padres did well to convert three struggling pitchers into some genuine organizational assets. Naylor and Castillo won’t be as highly-ranked in the Padres' system, but they continue general manager A.J. Preller’s process of restocking the minors after his disastrous spending spree during the 2014–15 off-season. In November, he acquired centerfielder Manuel Margot (39th on BA’s midseason list) and shortstop Javier Guerra (87th) and two others from the Red Sox for Craig Kimbrel. He got Drew Pomeranz from the A’s over the winter, then flipped the newly-minted All-Star to Boston for righty Anderson Espinoza (15th on BA’s midseason list) on the last day of the All-Star break. Including the Pomeranz deal and this one, Preller has made five veterans-for-prospects trades since the start of June, trading James Shields (to the White Sox), Fernando Rodney (also to the Marlins, for 20-year-old emerging rotation prospect Chris Paddack), Pomeranz, Melvin Upton Jr. (to the Blue Jays) and now Cashner and Rea.
Trading Pomeranz and Rea (who had two and five years of team control remaining, respectively) and acquiring players as far away from the majors as Naylor, Espinoza, Paddack and 17-year-old Fernando Tatis Jr. (who was part of the return for Shields) suggests that Preller has shifted his focus not only beyond this season but also possibly beyond the end of his current contract, which expires in 2018. That’s a bold change, but one thing that it seems safe to say about Preller’s style as a general manager is that he does not believe in half-measures.
In the near-term, Preller has replaced those five years of the 26-year-old Rea with three team-controlled years of the 26-year-old Cosart, a former top prospect who has been a massive disappointment but nonetheless has a career ERA+ above league average—all of which could have described Pomeranz before this season. He has also added Capps, who was expected to be a key part of the Marlins' bullpen this season and is someone who, if he returns to form in the second half of next season, could be a valuable trade chip himself ahead of free agency at the end of the 2018 season. All together, that’s good work by Preller.
What exactly the Marlins have gained, however, remains to be seen. Cashner certainly has the ability to be a solid No. 3 in the Miami rotation behind Fernandez and sophomore lefty Adam Conley. In his last three starts for San Diego—all of which came against contending teams (the Giants, Cardinals and Blue Jays)—Cashner posted a 2.55 ERA with 23 strikeouts against three walks in 17 2/3 innings. In 2013 and ’14 combined, he had a 2.87 ERA (119 ERA+) over 298 1/3 innings. That, combined with a fastball that can reach triple-digits, led many to expect a breakout year from him in 2015. Instead, he was lousy last year, and over the last two seasons, his home-run, walk, and strikeout-to-walk ratios have all gone in the wrong direction, and he has lost a tick off his fastball. The injury-prone 29-year-old could just as easily spend the rest of the year on the disabled list as emerge as a rotation savior for the Marlins.
As for Rea, the primary selling point is those five years of team control. But it’s not clear that the former 12th-round pick, who turned 26 on July 1, will be an upgrade on the 24-year-old Urena, who has posted a 4.19 ERA in 11 career starts and has allowed just two runs in 11 2/3 innings in two starts since being recalled after the All-Star break. Urena will get at least one more chance to assert his place in the rotation against the Cardinals on Friday night. Rea will take Cosart's place on Saturday, with Cashner making his Miami debut on Sunday night.
Perhaps most problematic for the Marlins: Having used several of their top trade chips and acquired two starters (and with Dee Gordon having just returned from his 80-game performance-enhancing drug suspension), Miami may think it's done dealing at this deadline. If so, the Marlins may be done in more ways than one.