Free Agent Options for Marlins Heading Into 2013 Are Slight

Let’s pretend for a second that the Marlins had loads of money to spend on free agency this 2012-2013 offseason. Who would they target? What would their game plan be? What assets would fit?

Keep in mind, the stated goal of the front office is to improve on last season’s win total and NOT to finish in last place in their division. The 69 wins from last year, despite a $111M payroll, was deemed not sufficient and the roster was blown up – the debate rages on whether or not this was the right call (see the Red Sox deal with the Dodgers to gain a little more perspective).

So what would a reasonable goal be? .500? The Phillies finished 81-81 last season but they also had a reported payroll of $174M – that is not an efficient financial model to get those results. That is roughly $2.1M per win. The Marlins paid out about $1.7M per win last season. In terms of runs scored (RS) and runs allowed (RA) the Phillies were only +4 on the season. They had a total of 684 RS and 680 RA to get there. The Marlins? They had only 609 RS and 724 RA for a difference of -115 on the season. If the Marlins use the Phillies as a barometer, then they would have to increase their RS by 75 and decrease their RA by 44. In other words, the Marlins have to find a way to pick up .46 runs per game and drop .27 runs allowed per game over the course of next season. How?

Let’s look at what the Marlins have first. We need to target any areas of weakness the Marlins are looking to shore up. Glancing at the roster depth as of now, the Marlins have a few areas of need notably 3B and starting pitching. Giancarlo Stanton is a tremendous  hitter surely to produce runs if hitters can get on base in front of him. If the Marlins can increase their ability to get hits and get on base, they surely will be able to score runs. The Marlins were one of the worst run producers last season despite the leadoff success of Jose Reyes’ .284 AVG. Often times, there was no one hitting behind him consistently enough to drive him in. The Marlins will be depending on a young, unproven cast to get hits but there is reason for optimism. Logan Morrison, playing 1B, will be at his natural defensive position and looked to as a leader on the club. Hitting third, in front of Stanton, will help him get better pitches to see and if he can get back to his patient hitting approach he showed in the minors, the Marlins have a solid 3 and 4 hitting crew in their lineup. Justin Ruggiano provided steady offense, putting the ball in play, hitting for average, and giving the Marlins power from the CF spot in the field. He can slide down to 5 or hit earlier in the lineup if needed. Leading off most likely will be Juan PIerre, in his second tour with the Fish. He hit .307 last season and is the MLB active leader in stolen bases so he will provide speed and contact at the top of the lineup. Donovan Solano provided steady defense and solid offense and he should continue to do so moving over to 2B, his natural position on the field. Adeine Hechavarria is the Marlins SS of the future now and is looked for primarily for his defensive prowess. His hitting is a question mark but clearly the Marlins feel they have addressed this position. Catcher may be more of a platoon with Rob Brantly and Jeff Mathis solidifying the position defensively and if they can provide anything on offense, it will be considered a plus (remember that John Buck only hit .192 as the starter last season).

That means the only question mark is Yunel Escobar – will he stay and play 3B or will he be shopped? If he stays, the Marlins feel they have a temporary solution at 3B and he could provide solid defense to go along with a near .300 AVG and possibly double digit home run power. This, however, is usually an area where teams get power production and this could be targeted as an area of need for the Marlins. The question is, are there any free agents available that could help the Marlins right away? If you look at the free agent list of 3B, the only notable is Kevin Youkilis and his offensive production is in decline. Would his contract be a source of value for this franchise and would it be attainable given the current circumstances? No, not likely.

It looks like the Marlins will have to stay internal to figure this out. They could play Greg Dobbs there, but he is best suited to come off the bench. Solano could slide over and play 3B leaving options at 2B. Austin Barnes, who led the Marlins in hits last year in the minors (152H) may be a long term solution. We could even see a return of Chris Coghlan at 2B, maybe even get some time in LF or 3B considering he hits anywhere like he did in 2009.

At the end of the day, the Marlins don’t seem to have a lot of options to improve on the field via the free agent market at this time that would fit within the confines outlined by the front office. So, don’t expect a big splash here. Does this mean the Marlins can improve offensively? They can’t do much worse and given Tino Martinez’s hire to be the hitting coach, with Redmond’s managerial skills, this team could see an uptick on offense if they get Stanton to perform like he did last season and get Morrison to finally realize his potential. If everyone else hits on their projection, you have a solid offense that can move the ball around but won’t scare anyone.

Which brings us to pitching. The starting rotation will be anchored by Ricky Nolasco, followed by Jacob Turner, then Henderson Alvarez via the Blue Jays trade, next will be Nathan Eovaldi, and finally a 5th starter maybe Wade LeBlanc. Turner is supposed to be the anchor of this staff in the future and was highly regarded by the Tigers but so was Andrew Miller. Along with the rest of the rotation, outside of Nolasco, this staff is largely unproven. They are scrappy and will scatter hits but don’t have fireball stuff that the Marlins staffs of the past were known for. Jose Fernandez, one of the top 20 prospects in MLB, waits in the wings down in the minors and is expected to be an impact prospect and could get some time mid-late 2013. There most likely will be an injury or two and depending on this staff to perform better than last year’s may be a stretch, but given the production overall of last year’s staff and the cost (see Carlos Zambrano and his $19M), it can’t get much worse. Maybe Ricky Nolasco can replace Mark Buerhle’s production – he is in the final year of his contract.

Are there targets on the free agent list that can help the Marlins? Not really. Most contracts that would provide solid value would be attached to players advanced in age (Kevin Millwood is 38, Ryan Dempster is 36, Roy Oswalt is 35). There are a few, however, that could present solid additions but also are risks. Brandon McCarthy doesn’t strike out a lot of guys, but doesn’t walk a lot either, and has had a respectable +3 ERA the past two seasons – the only caveat is that he hasn’t started more than 25 games ever. McCarthy pulled in $4.2M last season. Carlos Villanueva is another interesting pickup but he has been a guy who has swung back and forth between the bullpen and the starting rotation, fitting in wherever needed. Villanueva is looking for a promise of 30 starts next season and made $2.2M last season.

What to expect? Nothing Huge

If the Marlins make any moves for free agent signings, expect them to target 3B and starting pitching as those may be the two largest areas of concern for this team to improve on 69 wins and finish out of the basement for next season. There are limited options for 3B, so expect the Marlins either hold onto Yunel Escobar and see what he can do or try to find another solution internally. As for starting pitching, the starting staff is vastly unproven and with Alvarez, Eovaldi, and even LeBlanc penciled in, that may not be enough fire power over the course of a season to win 20 games among the three of them. If the Marlins make a move, don’t expect Zack Greinke, but instead think players like McCarthy or Villanueva who are looking to make the next step in their careers and need an opportunity to do so. The Marlins would take a calculated risk and not get in over their heads while hoping to develop the younger members on their staff. At the same time, there are few real impact options out there – even Greinke is a risk with his social anxiety leaving a huge question mark on his worth. Josh Hamilton would provide a large bat, and recognition, but is also a risk due to his health record. Would he be worth $100M risk? The Marlins seem to have balked at that after getting a taste of Jose Reyes and not being totally blown away.