Knowing that it might be their last time together in the same Marlins outfield, Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich hugged when they ran out to their positions in the ninth inning on the final day of the season.
They were right.
The Marlins on Thursday made it official, trading Ozuna to the Cardinals for four minor-league prospects.
With Stanton having already been traded to the Yankees, that left Yelich as the only remaining member of arguably the best outfield in the majors, and there is a chance he, too, could be dealt before spring training.
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“There’s still offseason left and we aren’t finished exploring ways to make this club better,” Marlins President of Baseball Operations Michael Hill said via teleconference on Thursday. “We’re going to always be in search of ways to improve our ball club.”
The Marlins, in their whirlwind sell-off of core players, sent Ozuna to the Cardinals for pitchers Sandy Alcantara, Zac Gallen and Daniel Castano, and outfielder Magneuris Sierra.
Sierra, Alcantara and Gallen are ranked respectively as the No. 6, No. 9 and No. 13 prospects in the Cardinals farm system, according to MLB Pipeline.
“There’s no question that Marcell Ozuna is a tremendous talent, and I think if you look at the return we got for him you see how talented he was,” Hill said. “From the outset of the offseason, our goal has been a consistent one. We need to improve our overall talent and our depth. We felt like this was an opportunity for us to maximize on our return as we look to build this organization and add tremendous talent in doing so.
Alcantara, a hard-throwing right-hander, has a “big arm” and projects to be a No. 2 starter, said one National League scout. But he is still about a year away from the majors.
The 22-year-old Dominican’s fastball can hit 100 mph, but he needs to smooth out his delivery, the scout said.
“He’s going to have one of the highest fastball averages in baseball,” the scout said. “But he has to iron out a couple of things with his delivery.”
Alcantara, who is ranked as the Cardinals’ No. 9 prospect by MLB Pipeline, has gone 17-29 with a 3.95 ERA in four minor league seasons, with 365 strikeouts and 152 walks in a total of 369 innings. He appeared in eight games — all in relief — for the Cardinals in September.
“We’re extremely excited acquiring all four pieces in the deal, but we feel like Alcantara we feel like he’s a front-line major league starter,” Hill said. “He’s got a fastball in the mid-upper 90s, a good slider, changeup in place. He’s a talent we’re very excited to put into our organization.”
Sierra, the team’s No. 6 prospect, has exceptional speed and can play all three outfield positions. He’s hit .292 with 98 stolen bases in five minor-league seasons. In 60 at bats last season with the Cardinals, he hit .317 with no homers.
“He’s a top of the line type of asset we felt was nice to mix in when you think about the spacious Marlins Park and his ability to cut the ground and control the running game with his arm strength from center field,” Hill said.
Gallen went 10-8 with a 2.93 ERA overall last season while pitching at the Single, Double and Triple A levels in the Cardinals’ farm system. Castano pitched in the low minors.
In other moves
Hoping to find a needle in a haystack — another Dan Uggla, for instance — the Marlins on Thursday selected two pitchers in the Rule 5 Draft: right-handers Elieser Hernandez and Brett Graves.
“Both selections are starting pitchers, and we’re going to give them an opportunity to start and compete,” said Michael Hill, Marlins president of baseball operations.
Like all Rule 5 selections, both are gambles.
In order for the Marlins to keep the two players, they must keep them on their 25-man roster for the duration of the season. That sounds like a tall order for Hernandez, who has never pitched above High A. Graves has never pitched above Double A.
“They’re Rule 5 selections, so I think we understand the challenges that come along with those,” Hill said. “But you can access talent in the Rule 5 Draft that you can’t access any other way. So to be able to acquire two young starting pitchers we like, that we think have ceiling, that have Major League futures, was valuable to us.”
Each pick cost $100,000. The Marlins would receive half of that amount back if they decide to return the players to their former organizations: Hernandez to the Astros and Graves to the A’s.
Hernandez, 22, has gone 25-23 with a 3.32 ERA in six minor-league seasons.
“Hernandez, we think, is a very talented, Venezuelan right-handed pitcher who battled some injuries early in the season,” Hill said. “We saw him late. He finished strong.”
Graves, 24, a former third-round pick, has gone 23-21 with a 5.00 ERA in four minor-league seasons.
▪ Underscoring the lack of talent in their own farm system, the Marlins were the only team to take as many as four players in the minor-league phase of the Rule 5 Draft: catchers B.J. Lopez (Diamondbacks) and Sharif Othman (Yankees), first baseman Will Allen III (Tigers) and right-handed pitcher Brandon Barker (Orioles).
▪ LHP Hunter Cervenka was designated for assignment as part of the trade. The Marlins 40-man roster is now full.