Miami Marlins: Free Agent Signings Do Not Shift Balance of Power in NL East

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Miami Marlins: Free Agent Signings Do Not Shift Balance of Power in NL East
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Miami marlins Owner Jeffrey Loria

There is no question that the Miami Marlins, due directly to their offseason free-agent binge, will be an improved team heading into the 2012 season. It can also be said that the squad that will take the field for Miami in 2012 is likely superior to the clubs that went a combined 19 games above .500 across the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Those were good clubs, no doubt, but the 2012 club appears to be a deeper, more talented group.

While this may all prove to be true over time, what cannot be said, despite all the maneuvering and headline grabbing, is that the Miami Marlins of 2012 are capable of competing for the National League East crown. Moreover, they may not even be capable of seriously competing for the National League Wild Card.

In an offseason that has seen the Marlins add three solid but not spectacular pieces to their roster in Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell, it cannot be denied that the organization has nonetheless failed to elevate its roster to the point where either Philadelphia or Atlanta need to rethink their respective game plans.

We cannot know for certain what is to come via trade or free-agency; based on the dollars allocated thus far, we have likely seen the end of the big free agent signing period in Miami this year. Further evidence of this reality is the fact that the team has expressed no interest in pursuing Prince Fielder, the one remaining impact bat on the free agent market.

It is this non-pursuit of Fielder, in the end, that confirms the need to call into question the sincerity associated with the Marlins' offseason strategy. The questions began forming during the Marlins’ so-called pursuit of Albert Pujols, and it’s critical that we first explore the details surrounding the Pujols episode before moving on to the Fielder discussion.

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Pujols and Fielder

 

As it regards Pujols, Miami knew heading into that negotiation that they would not be offering one of the most essential elements of a modern, long-term, big dollar contract, namely a no-trade clause. It is apparently club policy not to offer the no-trade provision in any of their contracts, regardless of who they’re negotiating with, and they’ve stuck to their guns on this point consistently.

Kudos to them for drawing that line in the sand, however if there ever was a situation to bend the rules, it would be in the pursuit of Albert Pujols.

If they had bent the rules and given Pujols his no-trade provision, it is likely that Pujols winds up in Miami. It is at that point, after Pujols has signed his contract, that you begin to worry about massaging the egos of the players that you’ve denied the no-trade clause to in the past.

In straightforward terms, if Miami ownership and management lacks the ability to convince grown men that there are exceptions to every rule, and Pujols is nothing if not an exception, then it must be considered likely that they lack the ability to competently run a professional baseball franchise. This is presuming, of course, that they actually possessed the sincere intent to see the Pujols negotiation through to completion.

The highest dollar amount reported to be associated with the Marlins' offer to Pujols stood at $220 million, and that was for a 10-year deal. It is essential to understand this number in the overall analysis because it sheds light on the fact that Miami’s offer never approached the kind of overall dollars that would make the no-trade clause less of an issue.

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Alex Rodriguez, Still Top Dog in Salary

In the end, the Marlins’ dollar amount was estimated to be roughly $30 million less than what the Angels shelled out, and it’s no small matter that the Marlins’ offer was also roughly $55 million less than the number that was widely speculated to be the Holy Grail number that Pujols wanted. In other words, Pujols wanted ARod money, and ARod money means around $275 million over 10 years.

 

When we break down the facts, we have Miami pursuing the biggest free agent to hit the market for quite some time, perhaps one of the ten best hitters in the history of the game, and they choose to hold back on the two most critical components of the deal, specifically the dollar amount and the no-trade clause.

Instead, they’ve chosen to spend $191 million on three players that all arrive with question marks, all ostensibly in support of a renewed commitment to winning by an organization whose historical behavior would make a liquidator envious.

In the end, it doesn’t add up, at least not to anything good. It would appear that the Marlins are simply up to their old tricks, whereby they stock up on talent for a brief time and then sell everything off when they begin seeing success. Or, as it just so happens, when they start to feel comfortable about their ability to pay off the tainted stadium financing deal that is already under investigation at the federal level.

The linchpin to the entire equation is the fact that none of the three free agents signed by Miami were given the no-trade provision, meaning that the Marlins can unload them all at any time. All three signings were for reasonable dollars in the current market, and in year two or three of each of those deals the three players might each look even more attractive to other teams in need.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Miami Marlins' Braintrust

Had the Marlins expressed an interest in Prince Fielder, however, it would be much easier to accept the notion that they are truly serious about building a long-term, competitive program.

Fielder, as a lefty, may have actually have fit into the predominantly right-handed Marlins lineup better than Pujols would have, not to mention he is four years younger than Pujols. Squeeze Fielder between Hanley Ramirez and Mike Stanton and the lineup is immediately better than anything in the National League East, if not the entire National League. The righty, lefty, righty middle of that lineup would have been deadly, and with two plus-speed guys at the top opposing managers would have been challenged day in and day out to devise strategies to defuse its potency.

 

As it stands, the Marlins lineup does project to be better than it was in 2011. There are two qualifiers to this assertion, though, and the first has to do with the fact that Reyes, the crown-jewel acquisition in owner Jeffrey Loria’s eyes, has yet to demonstrate that he can stay healthy.

Reyes has averaged just 117 games per season over his nine year career and just 98 over the past three seasons. He is unquestionably an explosive player, but chronic hamstring issues are not what you want from a speed guy who is expected to lead your lineup for more than half of a decade.

The second qualifier to the notion that the Marlins lineup will be improved in 2012 is the reality that the true central component of it all, Hanley Ramirez, is now even more disgruntled than he has been in the past due to the plan to move him from his usual shortstop position over to third base.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Jose Reyes

This is quite a statement when you consider that Ramirez has been one of the most selfish and least motivated players in the sport for several years running. That he has moaned about having to endure this historic hardship, at a time when finding a job in America is like finding a blade of grass under the polar ice cap, tells you all you need to know about his character and perspective.

Will Buehrle help? Yes, he will. Heath Bell will also contribute as the new closer and the rotation does project to be better with Buehrle in it and Josh Johnson back in the mix. With this said, the Marlins’ rotation and overall staff still lags far behind whatever product is put out by Philadelphia and Atlanta.

 

Additionally, each of those teams will sport lineups that project to be at the very least equal to the lineup that Miami will run out there, and more than likely superior in the case of Atlanta. It’s possible, even, that Philadelphia’s starting eight will produce more than Miami’s, especially if Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are fully recovered from injuries.

It is possible, then, perhaps even likely, that Miami’s free agent spending spree and supposed return to legitimacy has been a well orchestrated feint. With the construction of a new stadium to support Miami ownership understood that continuing to field an inferior product would likely not go over well with their fans, and that it certainly wouldn’t with the MLB owners who have essentially footed the bill for this chronically and perhaps intentionally underperforming franchise for a number of years.

Why not, then, appear to go all-in on the free agent front, only to come away with the less expensive, much more easily absorbed costs associated with Reyes, Buehrle and Bell?

It’s a shame, really. The city of Miami deserves better, as do the fans of the team. While fans cannot control who owns their favorite teams they can control who their favorite teams happen to be. Moving forward with a new stadium, while potentially lucrative to ownership, could be a strategic decision that comes back to bite the current ownership, particularly if the practice of building up just to break it all down again continues.

Again, despite all of the headlines and attention, the Marlins have not surpassed either of the two teams within their division that they need to if they are going to seriously contend for a playoff spot this year. That may all change when the league grants another wild card entry in a year or so, of course, however it’s highly likely that the competition will continue to improve regardless. It will be interesting to note how the Miami organization behaves in these next few years, that is certain. Old habits die hard, especially when those habits line your pockets.

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