Yesterday, the Marlins finalized a deal with free agent starter Javier Vazquez, signing him to a one-year deal worth $7M. This is quite a hefty deal for the Fish; it is the first free agent contract the team has signed of decent magnitude since the Carlos Delgado signing before 2005. It is also one of the heftier one-year deals the Marlins have handed out, bigger than the offer they gave to Armando Benitez before the 2004 season and a bit shy of the Ivan Rodriguez contract.
All of that is to say that the Marlins don’t often splurge on free agents. As we all know, their typical method on acquiring players on the free agent market involves finding low-priced bargains and hoping that they come out in a big way. That is how the team always acquired its relief pitchers, and that is how they often plugged gaps such as the third base position in 2008 (Jorge Cantu) and the catcher hole before 2005 (Miguel Olivo).
The signing of Vazquez is a different approach than these. While those previous moves certainly panned out well for the team, they are nevertheless extremely rare occurrences, even for a team with as good a scouting department as the Marlins supposedly have. The Vazquez deal signals another method for low-rent team building, that of looking for medium-ranged bargains with high upside. In short, the Marlins are finally taking risks, and I think it is the right move for the team.
Budgetary constraints and risk aversion
In previous years, the Marlins spent very little money on free agents, opting to sign low-level guys and hoping for the best. This strategy is clearly one of risk aversion; the team is buying low on a bunch of players and hoping a small number of them work out successfully. Yet the Marlins have made it clear that they are at least interested in competing. Owner Jeffrey Loria nearly fired Fredi Gonzalez for not making the playoffs in 2009 despite the fact that the team was overachieving in just being close to competition at the end of the year.
This interest in competition runs counter to the small-budget concerns the team has every season. A small-market team like the Marlins will naturally have to depend often on sources such as their player development and farm system and wise trades in order to remain competitive without heftily on the free agent market. However, the latest crop of Marlins to come through the minor league system has not been impressive enough to carry the team. Furthermore, unlike in 1998, the Marlins did not have a large stockpile of trade-acquired players to populate the franchise after the 2006 sell-off. In short, the team did not have enough of the young players to carry a franchise through a low payroll, unlike the Tampa Bay Rays and Colorado Rockies.
Another team faced a similar issue with even worse homegrown products. The Oakland Athletics haven’t had many of their prospects produce at the major league level, leading to a few seasons of mediocrity. However, the team has done one thing to try and remain competitive throughout this time period, and that is attempt to sign players with high upside and risk to medium-priced, low-commitment contracts. They did this in 2006 with the very successful Frank Thomas signing (3.3 rWAR). They also did this to less successful results with players like Mike Piazza in 2007 and Ben Sheets in 2010.
Sure, within those three examples, the A’s paid $19M to pick up about three wins between the three players. But it isn’t the results so much as the approach which is admirable. The A’s and Billy Beane figured that the best chance the club had to be competitive in their division was to bank primarily on their young players to deliver and get some high upside from a relatively cheap signing or two in a season that would yield them surplus win value. The A’s struggled because their young players never delivered, but the Marlins have legitimate stars in Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson and a bevy of younger guys led by Mike Stanton that can serve as the basis for a competitive team. All the club needs is a three- or four-win season from a guy signed for one year at about $5-8M to put them over the top.
In the Marlins’ defense
However, the Fish have not gone to such an approach for fear of the risks involved. The A’s spent a lot of money on gambles that did not work, but their methodology was sound enough. The Marlins, on the other hand, have gone with a different route, attempting to find diamonds in the rough for extremely cheap deals and holding onto them for team control years. They likely have passed on attempting these riskier plays because of the stigma that, should the risks not pay off, the team will have squandered precious dollars on nothing.
This is an understandable point if the ownership had not put an emphasis on competing every year. But when your message from the top is that the team is willing to fire a manager for not leading an overachieving ballclub to the playoffs, then the front office has to make the best plays to compete. These high-risk/reward signings are one way to supplement a strong, youthful, cost-controlled core and push them into contention. Now that money that previously was to be spent on assured production from Dan Uggla has been cleared away, the Marlins are hoping to win a gamble on Vazquez in the hopes that he can springboard them into contention level. I don’t know if it is a good bet to make, but I like the idea, and that is ultimately all you can ask of from your front office.