Fleshing out Nats’ possible interest in Marlins outfielders

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Rumors are as much a part of the Winter Meetings as suite visits, shopping lists and late-night quaffing of beers. Most rumors don’t pan out, and those that have legs often tire out long before they reach the finish line. But you listen to them, consider them, and then decide which of them have a shred of validity and which don’t.

It’s kind of like tossing strands of boiled spaghetti at the wall to determine if the pasta is done. Only the strings ready to be eaten stick. And you better hope your wall is clean enough to eat off of.

Last night, chatter started to swirl that the Nationals were engaging the cost-cutting, salary-shredding Marlins on an outfielder. Or it may have been the other way around. Reigning National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton is gone, traded to the Yankees by incoming part-owner Derek Jeter. But the Fish have a couple of flychasers left in their pond, namely Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, who could be had for varying costs.

So this is a good time to weave a cautionary tale about putting too much stock into unsubstantiated chatter swirling around the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort lobby late at night.

Turns out the Nationals have spoken to the Marlins. Hey, it’s the Winter Meetings, that’s what’s supposed to happen. Rival front offices - yes, even those in the same division - do their due diligence by seeing what’s available, what it will cost and whether there might be a match to be made.

Forget the Winter Meetings buzz words - being all in, kicking the tires and vetting - that’s just a normal course of baseball’s business.

Why would the Nats be interested in a starting outfielder, you ask? Don’t they have the outfield covered with, from left field to right field, Adam Eaton, Michael A. Taylor and Bryce Harper?

Michael-A.-Taylor-slide-gray-sidebar.jpgWell, that’s the alignment - for now. But Eaton is coming off an ACL injury. Taylor finally broke trough and had a career year, but there’s no guarantee he can duplicate 2017 next season. Harper is a free agent after 2018, and though the Nationals would prefer to sign him to a long-term extension, he’s a Scott Boras client and that usually means testing free agency and seeing how loudly he can make a cash register ring.

Yes, the Nats have top prospect Victor Robles waiting in the wings, prepared to start the season at Triple-A Syracuse and be ready in case he’s needed. Another intriguing outfield prospect, Juan Soto, has to prove he can stay healthy and has only played 23 games in the low Single-A Carolina League for Hagerstown. Both Robles and Soto are mentioned every time a rival general manager chats up Nats GM Mike Rizzo, who has expressed a desire to hold on to both future studs.

But in the gray area between established outfielders and future franchise cornerstones lies the opportunity to play for now and look toward the future. And that’s the reason to pay attention to this specific rumor. Caution: It may or may not have legs, but it costs nothing to at least consider the possibility.

The Marlins are telling other clubs that it’ll cost considerably less to acquire Ozuna, who is entering his prime production years at 27, than it will to obtain Yelich, 26. Both have portions of five major league seasons under their belts. Ozuna, who made $3.5 million last season, and is under team control for two more seasons before he reaches free agency in 2020. Yelich is in the midst of a seven-year, $49.57 million contract that runs through 2021 with a $15 million club option for 2022. That means potentially five more years of team control, assuming the option is exercised.

So if you’re Rizzo and you want to cushion yourself against the possibility of Eaton encountering a speed bump in his recovery, the notion that Taylor might backslide or the chance that Harper will enter free agency after next season, which player would be more appealing? Ozuna is coming off a season in which he slashed .312/.376/.548 with a career-high 37 homers and 124 RBIs; if this were his walk year, he’d be setting himself up for a huge payday. Yelich hit .282/.369/.439 with 18 homers, 81 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. Ozuna can play all three outfield positions, while Yelich is primarily a center fielder who has also manned left.

The Eaton trade last winter should have taught you that one thing counts as much as potential production in Rizzo’s world, and that’s control. Eaton was affordable - his five-year, $23.5 million deal through 2019 includes team options for 2020 and 2021, at $9.5 million and $10.5 million, respectively, with a $1.5 million buyout for each season - and those terms give the Nationals the potential of five full seasons of control.

With that in mind, Yelich would look like the more desirable target, though Ozuna’s power bat is intriguing.

GMs like to talk about deals that do two things: help the club now and help the club for the future. It’s more than a forward-thinking approach. It’s the chess match mentality that any executive has to employ, thinking several moves ahead and planning for multiple contingencies.

Most general managers hate dealing within the division, for fear of any player they ship out coming back to haunt them in the 19 times they meet a divisional foe. But the Marlins are a special case this year, a club so bent on rebuilding at the lowest possible price point that no one considers them a potential contender for another handful of years (which is kind of sad, considering they finished second to the Nats in the NL East last year). At least that’s what we think the Marlins are doing. Jeter is missing in action, inexplicably absent from the Winter Meetings and unwilling to shed much light on the club’s mission past what appears to be a total teardown.

And assuming it’s not going to take a boatload in terms of talent to make an acquisition, what are you comfortable with giving up? Maybe the Marlins show interest in Taylor (who is from nearby Fort Lauderdale)? Would you package a low-level prospect or two with a piece that would fill a major league position to make a trade like that?

So keep an eye on the Marlins, Ozuna and Yelich. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them continue the fire sale, stock up on prospects and build for the future. Rizzo is fond of talking about “fair market value,” and he just might find a match in a club primed to unload salary for a modest return. Take a look at what the Marlins got in return for Stanton, and it’s not such a farfetched notion.

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