Before the 2013 season, Miami aggressively cut its future obligations to zero, dealing away its best players in a series of moves that drew fire from around the baseball world. But those moves now seem prescient after a campaign in which the Marlins improved by 15 wins and saw several youngsters make impressive strides.
- Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C: $15MM through 2016
- Garrett Jones, 1B: $5MM through 2015
- Jeff Baker, 1B/2B: $2.1MM through 2015
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Casey McGehee, 3B (5.028): $3.5MM projected salary
- Giancarlo Stanton, OF (4.118): $13.0MM
- Mike Dunn, RP (4.079): $2.3MM
- Steve Cishek, RP (3.143): $6.9MM
- Henderson Alvarez, SP (3.051): $4.5MM
- Nathan Eovaldi, SP (3.013): $3.1MM
- Jeff Mathis, C: $1.5MM club option (no buyout)
After so much upheaval in recent years, the Marlins’ first order of business in 2014 will be healing. The club’s two young superstars both saw their seasons cut short in dramatic fashion. Starter Jose Fernandez went down early to Tommy John surgery, possibly snuffing out the club’s efforts to compete for a Wild Card, and his return to health will have widespread implications for the franchise.
Then, in the midst of an MVP-caliber year, slugger Giancarlo Stanton was cut down by a fastball to the jaw. While his recovery seems a matter of course, his long-term future remains a topic of intense interest around the game. The Fish are said to be preparing a run at locking up Stanton for the long haul, with intentions of offering him the largest contract in team history. Of course, that is a foregone conclusion if the team hopes to have any chance of striking a deal: Stanton is projected to double his arb earnings (to $13MM) next year before his final season of eligibility. As Stanton enters just his age-25 season as perhaps the game’s most-feared pure power source, getting his signature on a contract might require breaking other records – such as the eight-year, $248MM pact that Miguel Cabrera signed before his age-31 season, two years in advance of his own free agency. Extension or not, team president David Samson has gone on-record as saying that Stanton will be on next year’s team.
While it could be said that locking down Stanton is Miami’s top priority, convincing him to sign away his prime may well require other moves towards contention. There are several areas that the team could look to improve, but navigating the risky realm of free agency on a budget will require care.
On the position-player front, there are plenty of certainties and several question marks. The starting outfield appears to be set for the foreseeable future. Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna combined to form one of the game’s most productive units. The latter two are even younger than Stanton, and are still a year or more away from arbitration. Fellow youngster Jake Marisnick was parted with at the trade deadline, and reserve Reed Johnson is a free agent, leaving Jordany Valdespin and Enrique Hernandez as reserve options. If the team hopes to make a run at a postseason berth, a veteran fourth outfield addition would make sense; players like Chris Denorfia, Scott Hairston, and Nate Schierholtz could be fits, with the latter making particular sense as a left-handed bench bat to complement the right-handed-swinging Jeff Baker. Much-hyped Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas has been floated as a possibility, but it is somewhat hard to see the logic in topping the market for him only to shift him to first base.
The infield is less settled. Third baseman Casey McGehee seems an easy arb tender for Miami, which is so impressed with his bounceback year that an extension has even been suggested. Though the club is said to have interest in free agent Pablo Sandoval, that would require a commitment to a much higher payroll and may not be the best way to allocate resources. At first, Garrett Jones is under contract for one more year. He continues to hit righties at a reasonable clip, making for a serviceable platoon situation with the lefty-mashing Baker. While there are rumblings that Miami could be interested in upgrading at the position, it is far from certaain that a clear upgrade can be had at a price that does not bust the budget – especially since Jones and Baker are still under contract. Though the options are limited by Miami’s lack of a DH spot, it is perhaps possible to imagine the team looking again to buy low on a player of Jones’s ilk, such as Corey Hart. A pricier option like Adam LaRoche would not only require some convincing, but would tie up most of the team’s apparently free payroll capacity.
Miami has a variety of young options up the middle. Adeiny Hechevarria figures to keep his job at short, though he continues to be a well-below-average contributor. At the keystone, the Fish have any number of in-house options, including Donovan Solano, Derek Dietrich, Ed Lucas, and the already-noted trio of Hernandez, Valdespin, and Baker. None of these players seems to represent a single solution, though the club could take that group to the spring and hope that Dietrich or Hernandez grab hold of the job, with Solano serving as an insurance policy. (If Dietrich cannot stick at second, he might also be moved to another position to clear a path for his bat.) Ultimately, Miami’s free agent dollars could have the greatest impact if they are dedicated to a middle infielder. This year’s market features several players – Jed Lowrie, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Stephen Drew being the primary examples — who would bring a veteran presence and the hope of a return to past form, though J.J. Hardy’s late-breaking extension could boost their demand. Signing someone of that ilk would afford an everyday possibility at second as well as insurance for Hechevarria. Another possibility is Cuban defector Hector Olivera, if he can qualify for free agency in time, though reports conflict on the team’s interest.
Starting pitching is said to be on Miami’s offseason wish list, with some reports even indicating that the club hopes to land a top-flight arm. As things stand, if Fernandez returns relatively early in the year, Miami can look ahead to a rotation that features a true ace backed by Henderson Alvarez and Jarred Cosart. Behind that group, Nathan Eovaldi showed encouraging peripherals, while Tom Koehler and/or Brad Hand might be looked upon as solid-enough innings eaters. Andrew Heaney, Anthony DeSclafani, and Brian Flynn all struggled in brief first stints at the major league level but offer plenty of promise (Heaney in particular). Justin Nicolino is also nearing readiness. Miami gave up on Jacob Turner in order to give a few starts to the ineffective Brad Penny, so he is no longer an option, but young arms abound.
While that group provides a good deal of promise, it makes sense for the Fish to consider adding an established pitcher to round out that group, especially since Fernandez is likely to miss a month or two and may not quite be his former self from the jump. But the top of the market – Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields – will probably require a commitment approaching or exceeding $20MM annually just to join the conversation on years. And would any of those hurlers choose to go to a Miami club with a history of dealing away expensive veterans? Adding one of a deep group of mid-level starters, on the other hand, would be a viable aim. With a bare minimum in future commitments, Miami could look to back-load a deal for a pitcher like Francisco Liriano or Edinson Volquez. The trade market is also a possibility, of course, and the current Marlins administration already showed its willingness to deal for young arms when it gave up Marisnick and recent first-rounder Colin Moran to acquire Cosart (along with Hernandez).
The bullpen, too, looks to be a solid unit in its current state. Steve Cishek and Mike Dunn remain entrenched at the back end, though there is at least some merit to the idea of dealing Cishek to a closer-needy team that is not afraid of his skyrocketing arbitration salary. Certainly, now would be the time to maximize his value, though that may send the wrong message to Stanton and take away a key cog. The club also received solid, if in some cases surprising production from controllable arms like Bryan Morris, Chris Hatcher, and A.J. Ramos (the latter, in spite of a ballooning walk rate). With only the disappointing, little-used Kevin Gregg set to reach free agency, Miami could just roll this group forward, using the leftovers from the rotation (Koehler and Eovaldi, in particular, has been mentioned as a possibility) to round out the relief corps. But a relatively cheap veteran addition would certainly make some sense.
Ultimately, for president of baseball operations Michael Hill and GM Dan Jennings, this offseason represents a chance to seize on opportunity. With many pieces in place, a few carefully-conceived signings or wise trades might not only lead to immediate contention but could set the stage for longer-term success.
The question, of course, is how much cash the front office will have to work with. It has been suggested that payroll may land in the $60MM range for 2015, after starting at $45MM last year, but could move up to $75MM. Either way, that’s a pittance compared to the rest of the league. But the higher mark, at least, would give some room: the team will start with around $47MM on the books (salary guarantees plus projected arb earnings) and does not have any obvious means to dump salary while building towards contention. Unless the team gets creative, then, it will not have much to spend unless owner Jeffrey Loria decides to crack the war chest. (On that topic, it’s worth noting that attendance did rise this year over 2013, though it lags the Marlins Park-opening 2012 gate.)
One other limitation to consider is that several of the top free agents are sure to come with draft compensation attached. Picking 12th overall, the Marlins have the game’s highest non-protected choice. While the team has shown a willingness to deal away its valuable competitive balance picks, sacrificing such a lofty draft choice would be a costly proposition.
Tomas? A solid veteran first base upgrade? A “big three” starter? It’s not clear that any of those moves is plausible absent a commitment to adding cash to the hopper. And more importantly, perhaps, it’s not clear that any is strictly necessary. Barring the presentation of a sterling opportunity to buy low on an impact player that does not represent a true need, Miami could field a fairly compelling club merely by adding some short-term veterans in the right places — the middle infield and rotation being the most fruitful possibilities — and hoping that its impressive youngsters continue to develop.