Megatrade with Marlins won't radically alter Blue Jays' fortunes
The Blue Jays and Marlins
The deal finds the Blue Jays assuming $167.75 million worth of contracts, led by those of Reyes ($96 million over the next five years plus a 2018 option) and Buehrle ($52 million over the next three years) who were just signed by the Marlins last offseason. Subtract the $4 million being sent to Toronto in the trade and Escobar's $5 million salary for 2013, and that's a net $158.75 million increase in Toronto's financial commitments.
All of that to acquire five starting players from a team that won just 69 games in 2012, which begs the question: If a team that won just 73 games acquires one-fifth of the roster of a team that won just 69, did it really get any better?
There's no arguing that Reyes, Johnson and Buehrle, who are ultimately the key players in this trade (at least for the coming season) are big names. Their contracts attest to that, with Johnson due to make $13.75 million in 2013, the final year of his deal. The question is whether or not they represent a significant upgrade for the Blue Jays.
Start with Reyes. In 2012, his first year as a Marlin, he was worth 2.8 wins above replacement per Baseball-Reference's bWAR. That's a strong contribution from the shortstop position, but far short of the 4.7 wins he contributed in an injury-shortened season in his walk year with the Mets in 2011. It's also barely more than the 2.5 wins Escobar contributed to the Blue Jays in 2012. 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.
Given Reyes' injury history, which is a large part of the reason that his contribution has been so low over the last four years, only one of which saw him avoid the disabled list, one can't even argue that the Jays gained security at shortstop by adding Reyes. If Reyes was injury-prone in his 20s, what are his 30s going to look like?
If this trade is going to have any real positive impact on the Jays' fortunes it seems most likely to happen in the starting rotation. Johnson and Buehrle were both worth just over three wins above replacement in 2012 and will be replacing the replacement-level pitching of Alvarez in 2012 and, most likely, the combination of free agent Carlos Villanueva and lefty journeyman Aaron Laffey, who were worth roughly one and a half wins above replacement combined in 2012. Swap out those 2012 performances and Toronto just made something close to a five-win improvement in its rotation.
The problem there is that Johnson's injury problems have been even greater than Reyes' over the course of his career. From Sept. 2010 through the end of the 2011 season, Johnson made just nine starts due to shoulder inflammation, and while he stayed healthy in 2012, making 30 starts for just the second time in his career, he wasn't nearly as effective as he had been before that injury.
Buehrle, meanwhile, will turn 34 in late March and was effectively a league-average innings eater in two of the last three seasons. There's value in that, as well as in his streak of 12 straight seasons with 30 starts and 200 innings pitched, but that also means he has a ton of miles on his left arm and is going to be wildly overpaid in the last two years of his contract, which will see his salary jump to $18 million in 2014 and $19 million in 2015.
Besides which, a five-win improvement won't even get the Blue Jays back up to .500 in 2013. If Toronto is competitive next season it will largely be because of the performances of the players it already had on Tuesday morning: Jose Bautista, Rickey Romero, Brandon Morrow, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, Edwin Encarnacion, catching prospect Travis d'Arnaud and sophomore outfielder Anthony Gose. All but Encarnacion disappointed in one way or another in 2012, be it due to performance, injury or both.
If that core comes together, the potential upgrade of Buehrle and a healthy Johnson in the rotation, as well as a potential up-tick in performance from Reyes at shortstop, could have a big impact, but those three players will by no means make the difference on their own. That is to say that the Blue Jays may have pulled off a gigantic trade, but it doesn't mean they've made a gigantic improvement to their 2013 outlook. The only gigantic change the Jays have made is to their financial bottom line.
As for the rest of the players in the deal, Bonifacio is a switch-hitting speedster who can play all over the diamond and could be useful in a utility role that sees him share time at second base with free agent addition Maicer Izturis, in leftfield with Gose or Rajai Davis, or spell a slumping Rasmus in center or an injured Reyes at shortstop. Bonifacio has matured into a nice player to have on the bench, but he's mortar, not brick.
Buck, whose All-Star season with the Blue Jays in 2010 led to his three-year deal with the Marlins, was a throw-in, and it's his $6 million salary for 2012 that Miami largely covered with the money it sent to Toronto. The Marlins were clearing a roster spot, and the Jays, who have J.P. Arencibia as their incumbent and d'Arnaud ready, could well flip or even cut Buck before the spring.
The Marlins got Escobar, a perpetually underrated player per the bWAR numbers I mentioned above, but one who just turned 30 and has a reputation as a head case that wasn't improved when he took the field with a homophobic slur (in Spanish) on his eye-black tape in mid-September.
Alvarez is a groundballer who turns 23 in April and impressed in 10 starts as a rookie in 2011. He was far less impressive in his first full major league season in 2012, with a strikeout rate that dipped to 3.8 per nine innings being a major cause for concern. He might yet prove to be a nice young pitcher, one capable of matching or surpassing Buehrle's performance in a Blue Jay uniform, but it's telling that Toronto was willing to part with him in this deal.
The Fish will also get backup catcher Jeff Mathis to replace Buck. Mathis is a replacement-level player who has nonetheless carved out a career as a major league backup who perpetually picked up 200-plus plate appearances a season.
As for the prospects the Marlins acquired, Adeiny Hechevarria, who lost his rookie status this season and will turn 24 in April, is a slick-fielding shortstop who could hit ninth in a National League lineup. Righty starter Anthony DeSclafani, who will turn 23 in April, was a sixth-round pick in the 2011 draft and was solid in his professional debut in full-season ball this past year. DeSclafani might be something, but his strikeout rate in A-ball was unimpressive.
The key players in the deal heading to the Marlins are centerfielder Jake Marisnick and lefthanded starter Justin Nicolino. Marisnick, who will be 22 in March, is a five-tool centerfielder who appeared to be translating those tools to the game in his full-season debut in 2011, but he took a step back in High-A and Double-A this past season. He remains a great athlete, but there are serious doubts arising about his ability to produce at the plate, particularly giving an eroding plate approach. He'll likely open 2013 back at Double-A for his age-22 season, which could be a significant one in his development or lack thereof.
Still, there's a lot of potential in his tall frame. Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein, since hired by the Astros, rated him the Toronto's second-best prospect behind d'Arnaud coming into the 2012 season. If Marisnick finds himself at the plate, he could be a star.
Nicolino was very impressive in his full-season debut at the age of 20 in 2011, going 10-4 with a 2.46 ERA and a 5.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio in A-ball. He has above average velocity for a lefty, good movement on his fastball, an excellent changeup and a good head for pitching. He could be in Miami's rotation as soon as 2014 and could be an above-average major league starter, if not a front-of-the rotation arm.
If this was any other team, I would actually rate this trade fairly favorably for the Marlins. Yes, it looks bad, but they rid themselves of $158.75 million worth of contracts and acquired a solid replacement for Reyes at shortstop and some promising youngsters in the process. They didn't get any blue-chip prospects, but they did well given the salary relief involved and the uncertainty connected to two of the three key players they sent to Toronto and the age of the third.
However, these are the Marlins. Any other team could sell this as a solid rebuilding trade, but all this franchise ever builds are boutiques at which the other 29 teams can shop. Six years passed between their two World Series championships, but a decade has come and gone since the second and they're as far away from a third as they have ever been. That means this 12-player trade just might be much ado about nothing, much like the Marlins' shopping spree last year turned out to be.