Over the weekend, amidst the chaos that was the Vernon Wells trade to the Los Angeles Angels (quick reaction: worst trade in the history of the game), the Tampa Bay Rays made two solid moves wrapped up in one, signing Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon to fill in two spots in their lineup for around $7.25M and change. These moves were excellent for the Rays, who now have just solidified their lineup in the wake of the losses of Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford.
Obviously, this isn’t a Rays blog, but these moves represent the sort of sound, intelligent work a cash-strapped team like the Rays should make to fill in their roster. In fact, I only wished the Marlins made similar moves to make their team better, but only recently have the Fish made these types of moves. The Rays will have a payroll of around $40M, and yet their team looks great compared to the Marlins and their payroll of approximately $58M, the highest mark since 2005. How have the Rays done this, and how can the Marlins capitalize on that process? Let’s look at some of the different things the Rays have done to maintain success and what the Marlins can emulate.
Gambling on cheap, one-year deals with high upside
The Rays did just that with their tandem signings of Ramirez and Damon, expecting that they could provide around three wins worth of value for very little. The Rays haven’t done this often due to payroll constrictions, but the few signings they have made paid off quite well for them. The team signed Carlos Pena to a one-year deal, to which he responded with his career-best season in 2007. The team then parlayed that signing into a three-year extension which benefitted the Rays quite a bit. In a similar move last season, the team traded away a meaningless relief part to the Atlanta Braves in order to acquire Rafael Soriano, who had recently accepted arbitration from the Braves instead of going off to free agency. In a way, this too came off as an advantageous, one-year deal, as Soriano went on to post an excellent in relief for the Rays.
This season, the Rays’ payroll opened up enough for the team to go for a gamble like this; the losses of Soriano and Carl Crawford from the payroll yielded a surplus of room to acquire short-term assets. The Marlins have recently had space cleared up in their payroll as well, with the combination of the new ballpark spearheading a slight increase in payroll and the Marlins trading away Dan Uggla before his final arbitration season. And indeed the Marlins went ahead and spent that money, acquiring Javier Vazquez and John Buck. One was a signing of the ilk described here; the Vazquez deal, while expensive, was akin to the one the Rays had with Soriano, in which the team was expecting a certain level of performance but had a high-risk/high-reward mentality about the variation around that investment. However, the Buck move seems to be a completely contrary position to this principle; signing Buck to a three-year deal following a career year wasn’t a terrible risk, but it wasn’t likely to yield significant excess payout for the Fish. In a market that had similar catchers available, the team could have easily gone year to year with a player but instead opted to lock in long-term. This type of move locking up money long-term to a player with minimal upside seems to run counter to the way a small-market team should use its payroll.
Signing young, cost-controlled players to long-term deals that buy out free agent years
Both the Marlins and the Rays have engaged in this sort of activity. The team from Tampa, however, was far more lucky than the Fish in how its deal was completed. While the Marlins signed Hanley Ramirez, the clear centerpiece and star of the team, to a six-year deal that bought out three free agent seasons at the cost of $72M, the Rays lucked out with their own young superstar Evan Longoria. Fourteen days into his major league career, Longoria signed away his six cost-controlled seasons for $17.5M total, giving the Rays three cheap club options for his first three free agent seasons along the way. The Rays gambled that Longoria wouldn’t completely bust, an easy bet to make, and won handsomely.
The truth is that we will never see a contract like Longoria’s ever again, but the Rays in general have been smart to lock up their best pieces to long term deals before they became expensive via the arbitration process. The Marlins too have done this, and the team has done a very good job of identifying the right parts for extensions. The Marlins have chosen Ramirez, Josh Johnson, and Ricky Nolasco, the three best players on the team, while avoiding a long-term commitment at high prices for Uggla. With fan pressure asking for the team to keep guys like Uggla and Cody Ross, the Marlins correctly recognized who were the players worthy of extension.
These two strategies seem fundamental to small-market success. So which team has done better? Obviously the Rays had a head start with the financial flexibility their deal with Longoria provides them; while the Marlins will begin to pay Ramirez over $10M per season, the Rays will still be paying values around $2-6M for his services. But overall, the Marlins have done a good job of finding cheap value to fill their team and avoiding bad long-term commitments, the Buck signing notwithstanding. However, one area where the Marlins probably can improve is in their use of statistical analysis. While the Fish are not known for using much in the way of stats (remember when Jeff Conine and Andre Dawson said RBI is the most important stat in baseball?), the Rays are well known for their team of sabermetric analysts. This improvement may help the Fish gain a further edge on opponents, and it is something I look forward to in the future.