When considering the franchises for which you might want to serve as GM for a Day, arguments can be made for the Florida Marlins as both the most- and least-appealing franchise to take a stab at. While this year’s squad finished just below .500 and could never quite pull itself into the NL East race, few clubs can boast Florida’s collection of young, under-compensated talent and lack of regretful long-term commitments—exactly the recipe for building a consistent winner in a small market. However, the Marlins have other issues which make them far less attractive than they ought, issues which are touched on by my proposed mission statement.
Mission Statement: Don’t be evil—or, perhaps more usefully, try not to be frequently considered evil.
Let’s face it, despite winning two championships over a seven-year span—a record most franchises would kill for—the Marlins have a public relations problem that smells like the Augean Stables and, absent some sort of Herculean intercession, will take more than a day to clean up. Their long, painful labors to acquire public financing for a new stadium involved litigation, threats of relocation, and slashed payrolls, all of which have contributed to a general belief that Marlins ownership is far more interested in pocketing luxury tax payments from other teams than once again fielding a championship-caliber team. That belief, whether warranted, has affected attendance and could erode the hoped-for revenue bump expected in 2012, when the Marlins’ new ballpark is slated to finally open. When considering what moves to make for 2011, it’s important to keep in mind the need to regain the trust of baseball fans in South Florida in order to reap as much benefit as possible from the new ballpark.
Given those challenges, here are Florida’s assets, liabilities, and market assessment.
Assets: Peerless offensive production from the middle infield, extremely promising (and extremely cheap) young talent throughout the rest of the lineup, an ace starter in Josh Johnson supported by several other talented rotation-mates, a new stadium due in 2012, and a city and climate which should be an easy sell to potential free-agent signees.
Liabilities: Bad defense, no proven center fielder, mediocre bullpen, little rotation depth, several key players due for significant raises, and a reputation for penurious misbehavior.
Market Assessment: The NL East has recently been dominated by the Philadelphia Phillies, a team built to win now but who may soon age out of contention, burdened by heavy contracts. The Mets have similar issues, the Braves are likely to remain in the hunt, and the Nationals are building talent but are not yet ready to contend. The Marlins have youth on their side, and it’s easy to see how the continued development of a few players and some investments in the free-agent market could bring the team into serious contention very quickly.
There’s plenty of good news in those assessments, and while the Phillies may remain a windmill too large to tilt at next year, a wild-card spot isn’t out of the question. If I were running things, I’d do my best to convince ownership that now would be a good time to spend a little money (but not too much), selling it as an investment in customer goodwill that needs to be made to add excitement prior to our stadium launch in 2012. A few dollars spent in the right places could go a long way. If I’m given a little payroll flexibility, here’s how I would address the team’s needs on offense, in the rotation, and in the bullpen.
Offense: The middle-infield combination of Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla, despite their uninspiring glove work, gives the Marlins offensive power at positions where other teams scramble to merely avoid serial out-makers. Ramirez is due to start making star money this year ($11 million), and Uggla’s career season will likely earn him a bump into the eight-figure range in his final arbitration year. Still, this is below-market money considering their production. Uggla is unlikely to hit .287 again next year and is on the wrong side of 30, making any talk of a five-year deal seems ludicrous, but if he can be signed for three years and $35 million, I’d do it. If not, work out an arbitration-avoiding one-year deal and give him a chance to do it again. A little regression from Uggla should be matched by a little bounce back from Ramirez, meaning stellar production around the keystone for at least another year.
With the middle infield set, I can just smile quietly to myself and survey the reason I can afford to spend so much on Ramirez and Uggla: inexpensive and productive players everywhere else on the diamond. The loud arrivals of Patience (Logan Morrison) and Power (Mike Stanton) in the outfield corners last year were watershed events. Stanton spent the season growing into a fire-breathing monster, posting a .271/.346/.538 second-half line, and his on-base percentage is certain to rise in his age-21 season as National League pitchers learn to fear his power. Morrison was an on-base machine in half a season, and if he develops a little more power will be an above-average bat in left field. Former uber-prospect Cameron Maybin is too young to give up on and deserves at least one more spin in center field to see if he can translate his tools into production. Between those three, the Marlins may eventually be able to field the league’s most productive outfield.
The rest of the infield would feature adequate-if-unexciting youngsters Gaby Sanchez at first and Chris Coghlan at third. Both players profile as solid on-base threats and, while they may lack the thunder you’d hope for from an ideal corner infielder, the presence of Ramirez and Uggla allow us to plug them and their tiny contracts into the lineup with no regrets. Behind the plate, Ronny Paulino is an underwhelming option who ended his season with a PED suspension, but I’m not impressed with the free-agent catcher market. Having already ponied up for Uggla, and given the possibility of seven other solid bats in the lineup, I’d opt to keep Paulino at a reasonable salary and hope for a bounce back rather than sign, say, John Buck. We’ll need the money saved to spend where it’s really needed—the pitching staff.
Starting Rotation: The good news here is that three talented young starters are already on hand. The bad news is they’re all due for raises. Johnson is the true ace every contender hopes to have, and his contract guarantees him a $4 million boost next year. Anibal Sanchez proved himself healthy and effective this year, and Ricky Nolasco still flashes outstanding stuff but continues to underperform his peripherals. Both are arbitration-eligible and under team control through 2012, though Nolasco is already earning $3.8 million. Keeping these three is a must to guarantee a competitive (or better) top of the rotation for the next few years. The Marlins are currently looking to sign Nolasco to a multi-year contract, and I concur—assuming the money isn’t outrageous, though overpaying slightly could be written off as a further commitment to pleasing fans. If he can be signed through 2013, aligning his contract with Johnson’s, do so, otherwise go year-by-year.
Signing an expensive veteran starter to help fill out the rotation may seem warranted, but with so much money already distributed to Uggla, Sanchez, and Nolasco, not to mention raises for Johnson and Ramirez, it’s not likely to be in the budget. Taking a flyer on one of a rogue’s gallery of injury risks available (e.g., Justin Duchscherer, Rich Harden, Erik Bedard) is a possibility, but I’d rather give former top pick Chris Volstad and young Alex Sanabia another shot at rotation adequacy. Rather than commit to a pricey veteran over the winter, I’d find out if what could be a top-flight offense could carry us into late-summer contention, where a cheaper deal for a deadline starter could be made to put us over the top.
Bullpen: Last year’s bullpen was somewhat of a statistical disaster and is in definite need of improvement, but there’s reason for hope here as well. The big decision is to be made on arb-eligible closer Leo Nunez, who blew eight saves, posted a 3.46 ERA, and lost his job to journeyman Clay Hensley. Nunez still has the stuff to close, however, as evidenced by his 71 strikeouts in 65 innings and 2.98 SIERA (matching Neftali Feliz)—I’d bring him back and let him pitch the ninth (barring other developments). Young power arm Jose Ceda may be ready to move into a late-inning role, and I’d retain the aforementioned Hensley (who’s unlikely to retain his impressive strikeout rate), Brian Sanches, and Burke Badenhop. Depending on the budget I’m allowed, I’d be surprisingly open to bringing in a veteran reliever or two. I know this can be a notoriously bad move given the huge variation in reliever performance; however, nothing infuriates fans more than losing late leads, so if we’re spending money this season in an effort to please fans, the 'pen is as good a place as any. I’m not talking about signing a budget-buster like Rafael Soriano. Instead, I’d target Brian Fuentes, whose left-handedness and closer experience would give us a backup option should Nunez struggle. If that falls through, I’d spend the off-season with my finger on the pulse of Joaquin Benoit, J.J. Putz, Frank Francisco, et al., to see who isn’t offered the contract they think they deserve from other suitors. Again, this might be as much about seeming to address the problem as actually addressing it, and if there are no long-term commitments involved, a few veteran bullpen arms would make sense.
None of this is revolutionary—mostly it’s just ponying up a few ducats to satisfy the talent already on hand and hoping that the kids will continue to grow while tinkering a little around the edges. A full season spent in contention after displaying a commitment to retaining key players and improving the on-field product could go a long way towards fixing the Marlins’ relationship with their potential customers and, by extension, their long-term financial health. Florida’s development staff has done an exceptional job of developing potential star ballplayers and delivering them to the big club, and their slugging middle infield gives them a huge competitive advantage. It would be a shame to not leverage all of those plusses into a playoff-caliber team.