F-Lop and the Marlins’ free agent reluctance


FanGraphs writer and friend of the Maniac Jack Moore illustrates a point Marlins fans know plenty about.

"After an 87-75 year from a very young team, there was certainly room for optimism in the Marlins camp. Even with an 81-81 pythagorean record and an 83-79 3rd order record, the Marlins appeared to be in position, with a few upgrades, to make a run at the postseason… The Marlins are anywhere from 3 to 6 wins away from seriously competing for a playoff spot this summer. In the face of the MLB and players union demanding the team spend more money and a possible playoff spot, Jeffrey Loria has somehow managed to completely ignore the free agent market. Perhaps the Marlins simply couldn’t find the correct player to meet both their financial and competitive needs this winter. Regardless of why, the Marlins decision making process will likely result in one fewer team NL East race come this summer."

As I mentioned in the comments, this doesn’t surprise me at all. Since before 1997, the Marlins have never been one to stray into the foray of free agency. The only major signings that the team has made since before the first World Series championship were Charles Johnson’s five-year deal in 2000, Ivan Rodriguez’ one-year deal for the magical 2003 season, and Carlos Delgado’s heavily backloaded four-year deal signed in 2005. Please remind me if we’ve had any other important major league deals that I can’t recall.

Other than those that I remembered, the team has never really ventured into the market, but this year marks a season where the economic environment made entering the market as a small-market team possible. Prices have deflated pretty drastically than in previous offseasons, and very productive players could be had at reduced prices. So why haven’t the Marlins jumped on board yet, and is there anyone out there still that could help the team?

Marginal dollars per win and the team’s thriftiness

Obviously, none of us expected the Fish to go out there and grab at the big names, but some smaller names could be considered. After all, while Matt Holliday was well out of the team’s price range, someone like Russell Branyan could have fit right in our alley. But I think a few things prevented the Marlins from going this direction.

1) Content with what the team had

2) Thriftiness leading to a lowering of WAR price

They somewhat go hand in hand. The team’s ownership, whom we all despise, is naturally “thrifty,” and that’s using a polite term. Despite that, the team has appeared to be routinely “successful,” and that’s also using a polite term. Sure, 84 wins in most years and 87 in 2009 would be deemed successful by most teams generally out of contention. But, of course, the team was probably closer to a true-talent 83-win team, and probably needed a bit of help to make the playoffs. However, having the face of a mid-to-high 80’s team sure does wonders for whatever spending strategy you are currently using, and that’s sort of what the Marlins’ ownership has done to justify its thrifty ways. “Hey it’s working, why not keep doing what we’re doing, right?” would be their response.

So success in South Florida means competing annually for second place in the NL East and being a thorn in the side of the New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, and whatever other clubs happen to have to face us in September. And, if the team is still “succeeding” by this definition, then there isn’t a need to change course and try to compete for the playoffs, no matter how close the team is. As Jack states in the linked article, the club is three to six wins away from competing. Presumably, a few of those wins can be made up in the free agent market, but since the club’s definition of success is “three to six wins from competing” already, the marginal value of those additional wins is apparently much lower than what it should be. So even if adding someone as small as an Eric Hinske or a Ryan Church would have been at a price the team was unwilling to spend, because the club’s ownership is content where it currently stands.

Now, I won’t whine too much. The club signed Josh Johnson for four years and (reluctantly) retained Dan Uggla, so at least it’s giving itself the best chance to win with the players it had. But if you can add a win here or there to boost from a true talent of 83 wins to maybe one of 85 wins, wouldn’t it be worth it in this kind of market?

A real-life example

Here’s an example of a player that the Marlins could go after right now that would improve them on the field. Felipe Lopez recently fired super-agent Scott Boras because he still remains unsigned despite a 4+ WAR season. Now, as Joe Pawilkowski mentions here, a lot of Lopez’ awesome year was BABIP luck; he’s not posting a .358 BABIP again in 201o, most likely. However, at a CHONE-projected .321 BABIP, more along the lines of his career mark of .320, Lopez projects for a fairly mundane .273/.344/.381 slash line, good for a .324 wOBA and some 2.5 runs below average in almost 630 PA.

Lopez is an average defender second base, perhaps even a tad above average. He could also likely play third base and, in a pinch, shortstop (though in his career, he hasn’t been very good there). In other words, he’s an average player. The market $/WAR this offseason has been around $3.5M / 1 WAR, making Lopez’ production worth around $7M. However, some of his value is tied to solid defense, meaning he may get some money docked off. Also, he has a reputation for being something of a knucklehead, meaning teams may be shying away even more from him.

All of that leads to the Marlins. A 2 WAR player for around $4-5M for the season would be excellent for the Marlins. The fact that Lopez could probably pass as a third baseman (certainly more than Jorge Cantu) should make it even more appealing. Lopez would probably be at least a one-win improvement over anyone we put at first base now (we’d shift Cantu to first in case of a signing obviously), and the team would be a small step closer to the playoffs. And the best part is that the market for Lopez is almost dry, with only one team, the St. Louis Cardinals, showing any interest thus far.

But we won’t get him, and the team will employ Gaby Sanchez or Logan Morrison and man third base with Cantu’s horrible defense. And perhaps, as Jack mentions above, we will once again end up second or third in the division, about five games out of either race. Or, as the team’s ownership would want, everyone could click on the team and we could go on a magical run. Of course, I would enjoy that. But I would think that, for a team that could be a solid 81-win team, I wouldn’t have to wish for that. I would think that, in our position, our ownership would open up the wallets a bit and at least venture out to pick up another win or two. Hopefully, that changes when the ballpark arrives.