My gut reaction to the Miami Marlins’ acquisition of David Robertson a month ago was “inefficient but necessary.” Their bullpen was in a rut throughout most of July, particularly lacking in any right-handed options you’d trust in high-leverage situations. Enter Robertson with his lifetime 145 ERA+ (100 represents league average) and 171 career saves, still thriving for the New York Mets at age 38. His résumé was stronger than that of any other reliever who changed teams in the days leading up to the MLB trade deadline.
The Marlins were eight games above .500 (56-48) when they finalized the Robertson deal. The 2016 Fish were four games above (41-37) when they picked up Fernando Rodney from the San Diego Padres, likewise viewing him as a veteran floor-raiser for their ‘pen in a year where they felt urgency to secure a postseason berth. Although the front office’s process was seemingly more judicious this time around, the results have been disturbingly similar.
Rodney had allowed one earned run all season prior to the trade and boasted a career-best 30.3% strikeout rate. That Marlins team already had a good closer in AJ Ramos, so the 39-year-old Dominican initially slotted in as their eighth-inning guy.
This wasn’t a classic “rental” scenario. Rodney came with a reasonable 2017 club option. If he had merely regressed to his pre-2016 career numbers during the second half of the season (3.71 ERA and 3.77 FIP), the Marlins likely would have exercised that option.
However, Rodney bombed his way into free agency. Splitting time between setup and closing duties, he posted a 5.89 ERA and 4.97 FIP in 36.2 IP. That’s sub-replacement level production. He created more traffic than I-95, averaging nearly two baserunners per inning pitched. There were seven appearances in which he allowed multiple earned runs.
The 2016 Marlins finished 7.5 games back of the nearest playoff spot and didn’t retain Rodney.
In exchange for Rodney, the Marlins sent pitching prospect Chris Paddack to San Diego. Paddack had begun his minor league career with incredible peripheral stats, and leading up to the trade, he had authored three straight hitless starts for Low-A Greensboro. The Marlins must have thought they were selling high on the 20-year-old right-hander. They miscalculated.
Although Paddack blew out his elbow later that summer, he cemented himself as a consensus Top 100 MLB prospect upon recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2018. He barely missed a National League All-Star selection as a rookie in 2019. Currently nearing a return from his second TJ surgery (now as a member of the Minnesota Twins), he has accrued 5.5 fWAR/2,3 bWAR in parts of four major league seasons.
Any way you slice it, Robertson’s Marlins tenure is going even worse than Rodney’s did. You can compare their stats here. That’s especially true when you adjust for the context of his appearances. No MLB pitcher has had a lower win probability added than Robertson over the last 30 days. He’s been the weakest link in their ‘pen, which is saying a lot considering the struggles of fellow trade acquisition Jorge López.
The Marlins immediately inserted Robertson as their closer. It took only 10 awful innings of work for them to rethink that, manager Skip Schumaker confirmed on Sunday.
Unlike Rodney, who the Marlins acquired before the halfway mark of the regular season, Robertson was a more conventional deadline pick-up. There is far less time for him to overcome his lousy first impression. And there’s no 2024 option in his contract—barring a very improbable contract extension, he will be a free agent after the season.
The Marlins traded prospects Marco Vargas and Ronald Hernández to the Mets in the Robertson deal, with Vargas being the headliner. Still only 18 years old, Vargas posted a 141 wRC+ in 86 rookie-level games prior to being moved. He has shown outstanding plate discipline and the skills to potentially stick as a middle infielder at higher levels. The Mets promoted him to their Low-A affiliate last week.
In both of these trades, the Marlins sacrificed one of the best prospects from their already-thin farm system in order to augment their current playoff chances. Seven years later, the Fernando Rodney debacle remains notorious because of how he proved to be a liability while Chris Paddack’s stock soared. Entering Monday, a 2023 Marlins October berth is less likely than a Jacob Stallings base hit, per FanGraphs. The David Robertson trade could be remembered with the same vitriol if they don’t defy those odds.