A lesson from Akinori Iwamura


As you might have heard two days ago, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Pittsburgh Pirates completed a deal that sent second baseman Akinori Iwamura from the Rays to the Pirates for reliever Jesse Sanchez. Though Joe Frisaro said the Marlins would be a team of interest for Iwamura when the initial rumor showed up that the that a National League team was interested, ultimately the deal had nothing to do with the Marlins.

So why am I talking about it here? Because there is a lesson to be learned in what happened to the Rays and Iwamura, a lesson on the power of leverage in any market.

Many people pointed out, when the deal went down, that the Rays had few options left in trading Iwamura. The team had to make a choice regarding his 2010 option of $4.85M or pay his $550K buyout within one day of the end of the World Series. As a result, the Rays felt that they were on the clock, with the New York Yankees potentially finishing out the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday evening (which they did, congrats Yankees and their fans). The Rays eventually took a deal that essentially had them giving away wins, as Iwamura was at or above a league average level at either second or third base, while Sanchez is just another fungible reliever.

The key here of course is that the Rays were forced into a situation in which they had little to no leverage and were forced to give away an asset in Iwamura for pennies on the dollar. No matter the situation, giving players away is always a negative, and doing this goes double for organizations like the Rays who are perennially strapped for cash and need to efficiently use every asset available.

Which brings us to our own team, the Marlins. The Marlins head into this offseason with big questions, especially regarding potential trade candidates. Dan Uggla, Jeremy Hermida, Jorge Cantu, and Cody Ross could each be on the docket to be traded away this offseason for cheaper, younger parts. Whether or not trading them is the right move is only really relevant to what kind of value the team is getting back from the return. As a result, if anyone mentioned here is subject to a situation like that of the Rays and Iwamura, the Marlins would be giving away one of the few valuable things the team has (good team-controlled players) for too little.

In addition, each of those players face a similar situation that Iwamura and the Rays had. All four players, along with eight other Marlins, face arbitration this season. Of them, only Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, and Anibal Sanchez are more or less assured of returning, as the team values its starting pitching. The position players, in particular, figure to receive the most interest. But if the Marlins are not careful about voicing their intentions, they could be backed into a similar corner as the Rays were. While it is highly unlikely that each of the four position players is non-tendered, there is still the possibility of the Marlins being unable or unwilling to pay each of their salaries. If the Marlins front office allows significant time to tick by without making a deal, the team could be forced to either take on the extra salary, non-tender the player (a likely scenario only for Hermida, realistically), or trade away the asset for very little value.

Most Marlins fans think this situation has happened before, with another high profile set of players. The infamous Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis trade is often negatively referred to by Marlins fans primarily for this reason. In the offseason leading into the 2008 season, the Marlins were very openly shopping Cabrera and Willis because of the potentially high price tag of arbitration for the two players. There were many teams interested in either or both of the two young stars, but the Marlins drove a hard bargain in terms of their asking price. The Los Angeles Angels balked at the price of prospects Howie Kendrick and Nick Adenhart in a deal for Cabrera. The Marlins asked the Los Angeles Dodgers for Clayton Kershaw among others.

Teams began backing off and waiting. Eventually, the Winter Meetings rolled around and the Marlins had yet to make a deal. With arbitration prices being set and hearings beginning soon, the Marlins began to feel the pressure of time on their backs. Eventually, the club settled for trading both players for the offer given by the Detroit Tigers, a package filled with low-level prospects and highlighted by former first rounders Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller.

Now, that deal may yet pan out for the Marlins, but at the time it seemed to be a lowball move. The team allowed too much time to move forward and had little leverage, given that it was unlikely they would go to arbitration with both Willis and Cabrera. As a result, the team took a deal that could be considered inferior, especially given their initial asking prices.

The team cannot do such a thing this offseason. This upcoming 2010 season is important because it will serve as a bridge between the core established between 2006-2008 and the future team core of 2011 and beyond. Logan Morrison and Mike Stanton are coming, but they likely will not be ready next year. If the Marlins cannot afford to keep this group together another season and supplement them, they need to best use these trade assets and establish a bridge between the two eras. Hanley Ramirez is there, and hopefully Johnson and Nolasco will be as well, but the Marlins still have holes to fill and may be opening more of them soon. It is imperative they plug them until they can unleash the talented youth that they have in the farm system now.

Marlins front office staff, please do not forget the power of leverage.