What did the Marlins get out of the 1997 fire sale?


I’ve discussed sporadically the question of why the Marlins have maintained success for as long as they have despite continually low payrolls. One of the interesting notions for that continued success is the possibility that the team picked up a lot of good starting pieces in the overhaul of the 1997 fire sale. I had always sort of assumed that the haul that we received paved the way for much our success from 2000 onward. But was it the case? Thanks to Juan C. Rodriguez’ recent listing of Marlins top 100 prospects as listed by Baseball America and Rally’s WAR database, we can see an idea of what we got from those trades and how those pieces turned out.

Keep in mind that this analysis won’t be comprehensive or based on the moves when they were made. Rather, this is to be retrospective, and thus will “judge” the return based on what actually happened, even though that simply is not appropriate for typically measuring transactions. Still, let’s take a look at what the Marlins received from these 1997 fire sale trades.

The Players Traded Away

NamePosCareer Marlins WAR
Charles JohnsonC8.9
Jeff Conine1B10.4
Bobby Bonilla3B2.6
Edgar RenteriaSS4.1
Moises AlouLF3.5
Gary SheffieldRF13.2
Kevin BrownSP13.9
Al LeiterSP6.2
Robb NenCL5.5

I just considered the major players that were dealt; Jim Eisenreich and his career 0.3 WAR with the Fish was also traded after 1997. In this list, I considered basically all of the players from the Marlins 1997 team that were traded away within the year. I tossed in Renteria, as I think he should count among the players dealt.

With these nine players traded (and it always felt like more, but that may be because all of the starting lineup aside from Luis Castillo was eventually dealt), the Marlins made seven trades that were supposed to establish a basis for future Marlins teams. How did that do? Let’s take a look in the following table.

NamePosCareer Marlins WARBA Top 100 Rank
Preston WilsonCF4.7
Ed YarnallP
Geoff GoetzP
Todd Zeile3B1.2
Blaine MullP
Armando AlmanzaP-0.8
Braden LooperRP3.5
Pablo Ozuna2B-0.28 (1999), 36 (2000)
Mark J. JohnsonP
Manuel BarriosP0.0
Oscar HenriquezRP-0.9
Derrek Lee1B9.247 (1998)
Rafael MedinaP-1.572 (1998)
Steve HorrP
A.J. BurnettSP11.221 (1999)
Jesus SanchezP-0.5
Robert StrattonP
Joe FontenotP-0.866 (1998)
Mike VillanoP
Mike PagelerP

The table was lengthy but not substantive, at least in terms of wins. Of all the players the Marlins acquired, only two players were considered successes (Lee and Burnett). Past that, only five of them spent four or more seasons with the big league team. Only Burnett and Lee panned out as successful additions from among the players ranked in Baseball America’s Top 100 lists. The other three players flamed out dramatically (Fontenot lost seven of his eight starts with a 6.33 ERA and never sniffed the majors again) or slowly (Medina spent two seasons and 90 innings with the Marlins playing poorly out of the bullpen).

In total, the Marlins got 21.6 WAR out of these 20 players, the majority concentrated around the 20.4 WAR generated by Burnett and Lee. Can we really blame them for not getting more? This kind of overhaul is rare in baseball, but we did see something similar this season in the Pittsburgh Pirates. I did a series at Beyond the Box Score that had the Pirates getting even value essentially from their trades this season, doing some basic projections and such. I imagine the Marlins knew that they weren’t likely to get even value due to their lack of leverage (i.e. at a certain point, teams knew they had to trade and did not need to make competitive offers).

If you ask me (strict opinion, since I have less information about this time period than I do now), the Marlins got the fairest deals for Kevin Brown (return of Lee, Medina, and Horr for one of the best pitchers in baseball at the time), Renteria (a top 10 prospect for a young but so far enigmatic shortstop), and Leiter (Burnett). I feel the team also got swiped by the New York Mets in the deal that sent Mike Piazza from his temporary vacation in south Florida to New York. The Marlins received Wilson, who I assume was a solid prospect, and a couple of inconsequential pitchers for the best catcher in the game. Piazza had just come off a 9.2 WAR season alongside a few 6 WAR years even though he was a -5 to -10 catcher.

However you deem these results, look on the bright side. The Marlins turned some of these limited assets into some pretty nice players. Wilson and Ozuna were among the players in the Mike Hampton trade that netted us Juan Pierre. Yarnall was part of a small package that got us Mike Lowell from the New York Yankees. The supplemental draft pick we got from Burnett yielded Chris Coghlan. It’s not all bad, but I think it is important to put this setup in perspective.