The 2011 Marlins finished 72-90, in last place in the NL East. Ever since their World Series championship in 2003, they’ve hovered around 75-85 wins – just enough to keep from being in the cellar of the league, but not enough to be a real threat to make the playoffs. They’ve had two recent managers go on to reasonable-to-great success in other organizations (Girardi with the Yankees and Gonzalez with the Braves). But, this time, the Marlins are hoping that their new manager will have left another organization to go on to better things in Florida – Ozzie Guillen. However, while Ozzie led the White Sox to 4 winning seasons in the last 7 years, including 2 playoff appearances and a World Series title . . . he’s still Ozzie. There’s a reason that he’s not in Chicago anymore, despite his success there. His sound-bites might appear cute or funny or entertaining for a while, but eventually they wear out their welcome. At least in Florida, there’s the chance he will fade into obscurity.
The Florida Marlins are in the #16 television market in the country – right about the middle of the pack, as far as major league baseball teams are concerned. They’re just ahead of teams like Cleveland, St. Louis, Colorado and Pittsburgh, while they sit just behind teams like Minnesota, Seattle and Tampa Bay. Yet, for some reason, their payroll in 2011 was 24th ($57 million). No less than 5 teams in smaller markets had higher payrolls (St. Louis’ payroll was 84% higher!). However, I would imagine management would point to the fact that Marlins fans continue to be some of the least supportive in the country. Even the year they won the World Series, they only averaged just over 16,000 per game. So, what we have is the chicken & the egg question – is poor attendance a result of bad teams, or are the bad teams a result of the fact that the owner can’t afford a good team because of bad attendance? My answer – YES. I think both are to blame. You can’t blame the fans for not wanting to show up to see a bad baseball team. But, when a World Series winner doesn’t draw any more than that, the owners aren’t going to be able to keep up with teams with higher revenue streams. But, I do think a reasonable effort must be made in order to put a competitive team on the field, and the rumors coming out of Florida point to them being much more aggressive this offseason in signing bigger names. So, for the purposes of this article, let’s assume the Marlins can afford as much as $75-80 million (since $62 million in ’09 was their highest in the last 10 years).
The bad news for the Marlins is that they already have $45 million locked up for 2012 in just 5 players (Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, John Buck, and Randy Choate). So, you have to fill the remaining 20 roster spots with about $30 million. Fortunately for Florida, they do have 3 prospects that are ready to come up from the minor leagues – Matt Dominguez (3B – the top 3B prospect in the league), Tom Koehler (RHP starter), and Jose Ceda (RHP reliever – who could eventually be a closer). They also have young talent that will likely contribute in 2012 that will be reasonably cheap – Mike Stanton, Logan Morrison, Emilio Bonifacio, and Gaby Sanchez. Sanchez is on the verge of being arbitration eligible, so they might consider offering him a contract. And Bonifacio is arbitration eligible, and while he will get a significant raise from his $425k salary in 2011, if the Marlins don’t give him a multi-year deal, he shouldn’t cost them more than $2-3 million. But, I’d offer him a contract for 4 years/$15 million in order to keep him at the top of your lineup through the best years of his career.
Omar Infante was the second highest rated player on the team, in terms of WAR (wins above replacement), so it’s no surprise they gave him a 2-year/$8 million extension. If all of this works out, you will have spent around $29-30 million on your starting lineup – 1. Emilio Bonifacio (CF), 2. Omar Infante (2B), 3. Logan Morrison (LF) (I put him here because he’s the only lefty with pop in the lineup, and I’d rather have him protected by Ramirez than batting between Ramirez and Stanton), 4. Hanley Ramirez (SS), 5. Mike Stanton (RF), 6. Gaby Sanchez (1B), 7. Matt Dominguez (3B), and 8. John Buck (C). If Ramirez can get back to being healthy and swinging like he did a couple years ago, you’ve got a really nice duo of Ramirez and Stanton in the middle of the lineup, along with additional 20+ home-run power in Morrison, Sanchez, and possibly Buck and Dominguez. Bonifacio at the top of the lineup gives you excellent speed and a nice switch-hitter with a .360 OBP in 2011. That’s a very competitive lineup for a nice price. And, let’s assume that Florida can fill in the remaining bench spots (4-5 guys) for $4-5 million.
So, that leaves $40-45 million to spend on the pitching staff. Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco consume nearly $23 million of that. So, the rest of the pitching staff (9 players) is going to have to cost $17-22 million total. Koehler will be cheap for a #4 or #5 starter. Anibal Sanchez is the wild card. He made $3.7 mil. in 2011, which seems about right for a streaky #3 starter. But, Florida really needed him to step up and be a solid #2. If you sign Sanchez for $4 million, then you’re left with $12-17 million. Florida has a plethora of young arms that can be very helpful in the bullpen – the previously mentioned Ceda, Michael Dunn (LHP), Edward Mujica (RHP), Steven Cishek (RHP), and Ryan Webb (RHP). All of these are either pre-arb or arbitration eligible, and won’t be making a ton in 2012. The Marlins won’t have to spend more than about $3-4 million on all 5 of these. So, that leaves Florida with $8-13 million to cover one starter, and a closer. Mark Buerhle is a name that has been thrown around a lot in Florida, but I think they can spend about half what Buerhle would cost, and get something very close in the form of Paul Maholm. No, he’s not a big name pitcher, but his numbers in 2011 were very good, and he’d be a nice left-handed addition to this staff – especially as the #2 starter behind Johnson. Then, you have the money to go spend the rest on a good closer – Heath Bell, for example.
Unless the Marlins are willing to increase their payroll to something more like $90-100 million for 2012, these are the best options for them. Taking Zambrano from the Cubs makes no sense because he’s another right-handed starter that isn’t stable, and would cost them $8-10 million. Going after Pujols or Fielder (something else that’s rumored in Florida) doesn’t make sense when you have a potentially very good lineup in the making for rather cheap (you could get 20+ home runs from your 3-7 hitters, with 30+ potential at #4 & #5!). If they do increase the payroll to go after bigger names, they better hope it pays off in the form of better attendance and ticket revenue. We shall see.