Evaluating the Blue Jays-Marlins megatrade one year later
One year ago today, the 12-player trade that sent All-Stars Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes and two others from the Marlins to the Blue Jays for a prospect-heavy seven-player package became official. At the time, there was outrage over Miami gutting its team less than two months after its inaugural season in a taxpayer-funded new stadium, and trading two players, Reyes and Buehrle, whom it had just signed to significant contracts the previous offseason. There was also awe over Toronto's haul in the trade based on the star power of the three players named above. A year later, however, the blockbuster looks very different for both teams.
The easiest part of the trade to evaluate is the Blue Jays'. Even after adding free agent leftfielder Melky Cabrera and defending National League Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey (also via trade),Toronto managed to win just one more game in 2013 than it did in 2012, finishing last in the American League East both years. The two lesser players acquired in the initial trade were subsequently flipped. Catcher John Buck went to the Mets in the Dickey deal (effectively in exchange for two catchers who had experience catching Dickey's knuckleball), and utilityman Emilio Bonifacio, after hitting .218/.258/.321 in 282 plate appearances for the Jays, was sold to the Royals in August.
As for the stars: Buehrle turned in his 13th straight season of 30 plus starts and at least 200 innings pitched, but was merely league-average (12-10, 4.15 ERA, 98 ERA+, 1.35 WHIP). Johnson spent 89 days on the disabled list with arm problems, missed an additional start due to a blister and pitched with tendonitis in his left knee and bone spurs in his pitching elbow all season, going a mere 2-9 with a 6.20 ERA in 16 starts. He is now a free agent hoping to sign closer to his home in Las Vegas. Reyes hit .296 with a .353 OBP, making him the only one of the three that played at anywhere close to a star level, but he, too, was limited by injury, missing 66 games largely due to an ankle sprain suffered in the 10th game of the season.
Altogether, the players Toronto acquired in the deal (counting catchers Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas in place of Buck) combined to be worth 2.5 wins above replacement in 2013, per Baseball-Reference.com. The Blue Jays should actually get a better return in 2014 without Johnson bringing down the total (Reyes and Buehrle were worth a combined 4.6 wins in 2013 but Johnson was 1.5 below replacement and Thole cost them another 0.7 wins), but Reyes has now hit the disabled list in four of the last five seasons and Buehrle, who has a ton of innings on his arm, will be 35 before Opening Day.
As for the Marlins, despite shedding those big names, they were only seven games worse in 2013 than in 2012 and their future is arguably brighter thanks to the prospects acquired in the trade. Outfielder Jake Marisnick, rated the 64th best prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to the 2013 season, hit .294/.358/.502 in Double A at the age of 22, earning himself a major league look in the second half. He could emerge as Miami's starting centerfielder at some point in the coming season, slotting in between Giancarlo Stanton (still just 24) and Christian Yelich (22 in December) in the outfield.
Righthanded starter Justin Nicolino, who turns 22 later this week and was also among Baseball America's top 100 prospects, thrived at High A (2.23 ERA in 18 starts), earning a July promotion to Double A. Fellow righty Anthony DeSclafani pitched well in a season more evenly split between High A and Double A, compiling an impressive 5.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio and could make his major league debut in 2014, his age-24 season. The Marlins also got a solid stretch performance from righty groundballer Henderson Alvarez (23), who posted a 3.59 ERA (108 ERA+) in 17 starts after returning from a shoulder injury, a run capped off by his no-hitter in game 162, which, ironically, found the Fish, not the Jays, celebrating on the field at the end of the season.
Given the struggles of the players Miami traded and the fact that the team also cleared $163.75 million worth of commitments off its books, it is no longer difficult to see the trade as a solid baseball move on the Marlins' part (though, to blow my own horn, I saw it that way at the time, as well). That said, it hasn't been without its drawbacks for Miami.
Most significantly, the trade was seen as a betrayal by both the fans -- who abandoned the team in the second year of its new park, dropping attendance to dead last in the National League as it had been in the six years prior to the opening of Marlins Park -- and the players. Reyes and Buehrle were both promised they wouldn't be traded, while Stanton took to Twitter to express his displeasure about the deal. That exacerbated the existing impression of the Marlins and team owner Jeffrey Loria as untrustworthy and indifferent to team success. It also seems likely to have a negative impact on any future attempts by the organization to compliment its up-and-coming talent by signing significant free agents, making that already unlikely scenario all the more so. Beyond that, shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria's glove proved unable to carry his bat as he hit .227/.267/.298 and graded out as 2.1 wins below replacement level per bWAR.
Reyes' injury and Hechavarria's struggles made it all the more glaring that the most valuable player in the trade, by 2013 bWAR, was a shortstop that wound up on neither team. Yunel Escobar, who went from the Blue Jays to the Marlins in the trade and was then flipped to the Rays on Dec. 4 for minor league second baseman Derek Dietrich, hit .256/.332/.366 while playing outstanding defense for Tampa Bay, contributing 3.3 wins above replacement and proving to be the only player involved in the trade to start a postseason game this past October.
For Miami, trading the now 31-year-old Escobar was consistent with its decision to rebuild. However, Toronto very well may have been better off keeping him than with acquiring Reyes, as I pointed out a year ago.
Over his last four seasons, Reyes has been worth an average of 2.6 wins above replacement per season. Escobar over the same span has been worth an average of 3.2 wins above replacement per season. Reyes is almost a year younger than Escobar, but he'll still be 30 in June and is owed $91 million more than Escobar, who is only signed through 2013.
Indeed, Reyes was worth 2.5 bWAR in 2013, Escobar 3.3, and the Rays, an AL East team that did make the playoffs this past season, have since exercised the first of two $5 million options in Escobar's contract to keep him around for 2014. The Jays reportedly tired of Escobar, whose personality has chafed throughout his career, and who was suspended in late 2012 for writing a homophobic insult on his eye black. However, as a slick fielding shortstop with a little pop and solid on-base skills, he remains very valuable between the lines. With Reyes signed for four more years plus a team option, Buehrle signed for two more and the best players Miami received still developing, one year isn't enough time to fully evaluate the Blue Jays-Marlins blockbuster. From this distance, however, it seems safe to say, as I did at the time, that the trade was a legitimate baseball move on the Marlins' part. The biggest question that remains is whether or not the likes of Marisnick, Nicolino, DeSclafani and Alvarez can make it one that is actually remembered fondly by Miami's fans, or if it will ultimately be little more than a historical footnote, just another example of a team winning the winter but losing the summer.