November 1, 2011
Moving Forward in Miami
Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria wants people to forget about the Florida Marlins, forget about Sun Life Stadium, and forget about a miserable year that saw the team spend 92 of the final 105 days of the season in the cold, dark cellar of the National League East, only its second last-place finish since Loria purchased the team, unopposed, from John Henry in 2002.
The new era of Marlins baseball centers around the opening of a retractable-roof, baseball-only stadium, dubbed Marlins Ballpark until the naming rights are announced in November, in Little Havana. The $515 million park, financed largely by Miami-Dade County taxpayers without their consent, is accompanied by a change in the franchise’s name to the Miami Marlins, as well as a new logo and color scheme.
Team president David Samson has indicated that the club intends to pursue top talent for the major-league roster that will ensure the first year of Miami Marlins baseball is a successful one. While any team coming off of a 70-92 season undoubtedly has holes to fill, the Marlins would be better served by sitting on their hands this winter.
The reason last year’s Marlins fell short of expectations wasn’t that they lacked talent, but rather that they lacked the depth in the upper levels necessary to cover injuries to stars and scrubs alike.
When rotation ace Josh Johnson hit the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation in mid-May, the Marlins attempted to replace him with the following:
While the Marlins were scrambling to fill Johnson’s vacated rotation slot, Javier Vazquez was healthy but pitching like he was still in the American League, sitting at 3-6 with a 7.09 ERA on June 11. The Marlins considered releasing him but stuck it out because they didn’t have anyone in the organization that they believed could perform any better.
Hanley Ramirez’s various afflictions throughout the year also challenged the Marlins’ depth. Journeyman infielder Donnie Murphy filled in while Ramirez recovered from a leg contusion in early April, but a wrist injury sent Murphy to the disabled list on April 30, and he didn’t reappear until September. Emilio Bonifacio, freed up when Logan Morrison returned from a foot injury on May 13, stepped in to play shortstop when Ramirez hit the disabled list with lower back inflammation at the end of May. After Ramirez returned, Bonifacio took over at third base, where the combination of Greg Dobbs, Jose Lopez, and Wes Helms had combined to hit .257 with two home runs while playing such poor defense that Bonifacio was considered an upgrade. That arrangement lasted exactly one month before Bonifacio had to slide back over to shortstop when Ramirez was lost for the remainder of the season with a left shoulder injury.
With returns to health for Johnson and Ramirez—and indications are that they’ll both be ready for spring training—the 2012 team projects as follows:
The organization has discussed pursuing a top-flight starting pitcher to slot behind Johnson in the rotation, as well as a big bat for third base that would push Bonifacio to center field or a super-utility role.
The list of free agent starting pitchers that would slot ahead of Anibal Sanchez is short, with only C.J. Wilson fitting the profile. Another option could be Roy Oswalt, whose option for 2012 was declined by Philadelphia last week, but he missed more than two months with recurring back injuries and will turn 35 in August.
Wilson headlines this year’s crop of free-agent starting pitchers. He’ll turn 31 in a couple of weeks but has low mileage on his arm after spending the first five years of his major-league career in the Rangers’ bullpen. The Yankees are rumored to have interest in Wilson despite CC Sabathia’s return, and Texas would like to bring him back. Having either of those two teams involved in the bidding for Wilson sets long odds that the Marlins will make a competitive offer.
On the trade front, the Marlins have been linked to Rays starter James Shields for months, but they lack the young, cost-controlled talent Tampa Bay would seek in order to consummate a deal. The Rays are in dire need of a young first baseman, but despite the public relations train wreck that surrounded Logan Morrison and the Marlins last year, the club has not indicated a willingness to sell low on LoMo.
This year’s class of free agent third basemen also lacks depth, with only a 34-year-old Aramis Ramirez sticking out as a potential impact player in 2012. Toronto exercised Edwin Encarnacion’s club option for $3.5 million, leaving Wilson Betemit as the only other viable starter on the market.
Complicating matters for the Marlins is that their top prospect entering last year was third baseman Matt Dominguez. He spent the year at Triple-A before a September call-up, and his bat could be ready by the middle of 2012. It’s unlikely that either Ramirez or Betemit would settle for a one- or two-year contract this winter, so to sign either would be to punt on Dominguez’s future, rendering him trade fodder.
Since none of the available free agent pieces are ideal fits for the Marlins’ roster, what moves can they make to improve their chances of being competitive next year?
They should start by making one-year offers to starting pitchers on the rebound. A certain competitive American League club will attest to the value of signing a slew of unwanted arms and seeing what sticks. Candidates for one-year deals include Rich Harden, Livan Hernandez, Erik Bedard, Chien-Ming Wang, and Chris Capuano, among others. All of those guys have warts, mostly injury-related, but that’s why they are likely to be amenable to short-term agreements. Only one needs to work out to keep the Marlins from having to reach into the shallow, murky depths of Triple-A for rotation reinforcements.
Next, with options limited at third base, the Marlins should commit to Bonifacio as the starter in 2012 and refocus their attention on center field. Chris Coghlan hasn’t been able to stay healthy since taking home the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year award, and neither Bryan Petersen or Scott Cousins profiles as a first-division starter. Coco Crisp or David DeJesus could be had for no more than two years and, while neither hit particularly well in Oakland last year, both have demonstrated on-base skills in the recent past that the Marlins lineup missed in 2011. By the time a two-year contract for either player would end, there’s a fair chance that Christian Yelich could be ready to step in.
There has been message board chatter throughout the year that the team should move Hanley Ramirez to either third base or center field and sign free agent Jose Reyes to play shortstop. Without getting into the financial reasons why such a deal will not happen, it should be noted that there is close to zero chance that the Marlins would ask Ramirez to learn a new position in spring training, even if it meant bringing a dynamic, defensively-adept shortstop into the fold.
Few of the suggestions outlined here would generate headlines, but they would increase the chances that the Marlins are a competitive team next year. Frugality and patience don’t sell tickets, but winning should.*
*unless you’re Tampa Bay.