Could Marlins have done better with signings?


Fellow Maniac Isiah had a good question following the signing of free agent Javier Vazquez.

"Michael, do you have any idea as to why we didn’t go for Jon Garland? he’s 31 and pitched 200 innings with a 3.47 ERA last season, and he just signed a one-year deal for $5 million (plus incentives to $8 million max), while pretty much at his prime. We instead decided to sign what looks like a 50/50 chance at a washed up Vazquez for at least $6-7 million guaranteed?"

I admitted that this was an excellent question. In addition to the Jon Garland signing, yesterday we found out that the Texas Rangers signed Yorvit Torrealba to a two-year deal worth $6.25M. Why are these two incidents interesting to Marlins fans? They are intriguing because the players may indeed not have been all that far off from the guys the Marlins signed, Vazquez and free agent catcher John Buck. Yet the Marlins will be spending a ton more on their pair of players than the Rangers and Los Angeles Dodgers signed. So why did the Fish do what they did? Let’s compare the guys involved.

Buck vs. Torrealba

If there is one quality that Buck brings to the table offensively, it is power. With a career, 12.7% HR/FB%, Buck can hit the long ball, something that Torrealba never could claim to do (career HR/FB% of 9.9%). So you might be surprised to see this image, courtesy of FanGraphs:


Truthfully, this image may give a little bit better context, however.

Both these images are getting across the same general point: up until 2010, both these players have been worth about the same as hitters. In 2350 PA, Torrealba owns a career slash line of .257/.320/.388, good for a .309 wOBA and a wRC+ (corrected for league and park) of 85 (average is 100). Buck is the owner of a career .243/.301/.421 slash line in 2553 PA, which gives him a .311 wOBA and a wRC+ of 87. Even without the 20+ homer power, Torrealba’s better OBP capabilities actually make him the slightly better hitter over his career.

Now, taking a look at the most recent results and considering their respective ages, you have still suspect that Buck is a better hitter than Torrealba going forward, but by how much? No matter how much you might be impressed by his home run totals, Buck has consistently been a guy with around a .300-.310 OBP for his career, which severely dents his value as well. My projection for Buck going forward was a .320 wOBA, around a .240/.310/.420 slash line. For a more professional projection, Dan Szymborski’s often used ZiPS system has him projected at a .251/.305/.434 line that amounted to a very similar .319 wOBA. This agrees pretty well with his career numbers. What about Torrealba? Bill James has him projected at his career level of .309 wOBA, and I’d be conservatively happy with that guess, even after two slightly below average years. The offensive difference between a .320 and a ,310 wOBA is about five runs a season.

But there are likely differences between the two on defense. According to Rally’s defensive calculations for rWAR, Torrealba has been worth +20 runs in his career on defense, while Buck has been worth -16 runs total. I projected Buck as a -5 defender for an entire season, and let’s have Torrealba conservatively labeled a +2 catcher. The difference over the course of a typical catcher season (120 or so games) is probably around four to five runs in Torrealba’s favor. This means that Buck and Torrealba are about even in terms of projection for 2010.

Why are the Marlins paying Buck twice the salary as Torrealba if we are expecting them to produce similar results? Aside from the very real possibility that our defensive measurements are off (for what it’s worth, the Fans have rated Buck pretty poorly and Torrealba around average), I think that the prime reason for the difference is the perceived gap in offense. Buck provides something quite tangible in home runs, while Torrealba’s game is more balanced and thus less outstanding. Considering that Buck is also coming off of a career year, the Marlins are looking more and more like they overpaid slightly for a career season. In the team’s defense, Torrealba is two years older than Buck and more likely to decline over those next two seasons. However, it seems the team could have at least saved some money by not overvaluing the home runs as they likely did.

Vazquez vs. Garland

I have recommended Jon Garland before for the Marlins as a good use of their limited money. Garland is a guaranteed 1.0 – 1.5 WAR and is often valued at the $5-6M range. He is a solid innings eater who will give you almost 200 IP of 4.40 ERA baseball, and while that is not spectacular, it is serviceable and worth the money. But the Marlins decided to go with a more high-risk, high-reward option in Vazquez.

Reader Isiah wondered why the Fish would go for the riskier of the two options. Living conditions aside (Garland has been on the west coast for the last four seasons, while the Marlins appealed to Vazquez because of their proximity to Puerto Rico), I think the Fish made the better call by giving Vazquez $7M to rebuild his value here in Florida. As I mentioned yesterday, high-risk options like Vazquez are exactly the types of moves small-market teams closing in on contention should make if they want to go over the edge. A Jon Garland is unlikely to overachieve his expectations by more than half a win here and there, but a guy like Vazquez could give you a four- or five-win season when you are paying for barely past 1.5 wins. If given the option between the two, a team that considers itself on a tight budget and three or four wins away from contending for a playoff spot should go for the high-risk move, as it is likely the best payoff for your limited investment.

Did they make the right moves?

With the Vazquez signing, I am in full support of the Marlins. Despite the signs that declining velocity is unlikely to bounce back, I have to figure that the Marlins will know something that the rest of us analysts don’t with regards to Vazquez’ health and abilities. If they have scouted him and deemed him worthy of $7M for 2011, I think the risk is worth a shot. With the case of Torrealba versus Buck, however, I don’t think the team has a leg to stand on. While the Buck deal wasn’t awful, it seemed unnecessary given the similar talent available and how much the team ultimately decided to pay for him. Guaranteeing him a third year and twice what a similar catcher received seems like a bit of overkill to “get their man.”