The Marlins have made it very clear that one of their goals this offseason was to revamp the bullpen after last season’s disaster. The team has gone through this process by acquiring multiple relievers via trades, including Mike Dunn, Ryan Webb, and Edward Mujica. The Marlins only acquired one reliever via a signing, inking a two-year deal with lefty Randy Choate.
I have been mostly critical of the approach seen here. I understand what the Marlins are doing in trying to fix the problems of last year, but trading assets for relievers seems like a bad deal when reliever performance is so volatile from year to year. However, in light of the trends that we have seen this offseason, the approach the Marlins have taken may be better than we thought. The alternative to fill out a bullpen is to sign free agent relievers, but as Dave Cameron points out in this article, these relievers are not often worth the price of admission. Non-elite relievers like Joaquin Benoit, Jesse Crain, and Matt Guerrier have all received three-year deals for decent money this offseason, and that is a scary proposition for the teams making the signings. Despite the inflated valuation of relievers this offseason, the Marlins have mostly avoided this trap.
A history lesson
The Marlins have always succeeded in finding relievers from the scrap heap. Indeed, two of the potential relievers returning from last year’s team, Brian Sanches and Clay Hensley, were two such finds by the Fish. The Fish have made a habit of this during the past as well, signing forgotten free agents like Todd Jones and Joe Borowski to close for the team and letting them go when their performance demanded more money. The team has always been wise to overlook decent performances in favor of the stance that bullpen relievers can be easily replaced.
On the other hand, the Marlins have rarely made a splash in the major league reliever market. Jones signed a one-year deal after a bad two-year stretch with the Colorado Rockies, while Borowski was similarly snagged after things with the Chicago Cubs went sour. The only time the Fish made a splash on a reliever was with the one-year deal for Armando Benitez, the embattled former closer for the New York Mets. That move worked out very well for the team, as Benitez put up a 3.6 rWAR season (1.2 fWAR due to a significant ERA-FIP gap). However, the Fish allowed Benitez to walk the following season rather than pay him the eventual $21M over three years that the San Francisco Giants were willing to offer.
The strategy with money
Essentially the Fish have been able to avoid the problem of overspending on relievers by not having the money to do so. But this season, the team has clearly shown that it has the cash to spend after having traded Dan Uggla away and cleared out cap room. However, in an environment in which relievers were receiving deals worth $4-5M annually, the Marlins were still intelligent enough to dodge most moves. Instead of spending valuable cap space on a pitcher who will throw at best 5.5% of the total team innings and 1.5 times the leverage of a normal inning (essentially equivalent to 8.3%), the team added John Buck and Javier Vazquez, filling more urgent needs that would also be guaranteed to provide more wins if the players play as expected.
While the Buck signing was probably inefficient given the options available at catcher and the Choate signing was probably unnecessary, one can’t fault the Marlins for overspending hard cash for relievers. The team’s acquired relievers all have interesting tools, and the Fish are banking on those tools to deliver solid seasons. However, each of those relievers with interesting tools will be making significantly less money than the so-called “proven” relievers in the market like Benoit and Crain, even if they are almost as likely to provide solid 1-win seasons at fractions of the market salary. Fault the Marlins for giving up guys like Cameron Maybin for relief help, but at least the team is not committing multi-year mistakes in the market by spending their limited cash on inconsistent, limited help.