The Miami Marlins, Relievers, and Spending Efficiently


The Miami Marlins have made a lot of moves this offseason and I don’t think I need to rehash any of them. The team made a valiant effort in trying to sign James Shields but came up short. That was the last upgrade left on the free agent market for the team, however that hasn’t stopped them from shopping a little bit longer. The team had interest in free agent reliever Francisco Rodriguez until he signed with the Brewers and now the team appears to have interest in Rafael Soriano. Does the team really need to make such a move?

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Added relief depth is a good thing, so I’m not opposed to such an acquisition. The problem here is the team claims to be working on a tight budget, so every single dollar should count. Largely, the team moved up the win curve while working with those constraints. Those last few million dollars of available space shouldn’t be any different. So far, the Marlins have essentially swapped out Chris Hatcher (making near league-minimum for the next two seasons and under team control for five seasons) for Aaron Crow (making $2 million this season and under control for just two more seasons). For a team trying to build the best roster with an extremely limited budget, those $1.5 million or so dollars are crucial. Spending that extra money, of course, would be justified if Crow was actually an upgrade over Hatcher.

An important thing to consider with Hatcher is he was a catcher and those usually take longer to develop than other positions. Then, he became a pitcher and had to learn how to pitch after making his MLB debut as a catcher. Suffice to say, he faced some major adversity and literally learned how to be a major league pitcher on the fly. Hatcher made little, yet important, improvements year-to-year and they culminated with his breakout in 2014.

His above-average first pitch strike and swinging strike rates led to better than average walk and strike out rates. An improved splitter helped contribute to an above average groundball rate. His xFIP (which regresses a pitcher’s home run/fly ball rate to league average and recalculates FIP) was 2.78 and his xFIP- was 75 (100 is league average.) Finally, Hatcher found his place. While it remains to be seen if Hatcher can continue to pitch at that level, he at least showed he belongs in a major league bullpen (Andrew Friedman certainly thinks so.)

So how does he compare to Aaron Crow? While Hatcher has slowly trended upwards, Crow has not so slowly trended downwards. In 2011, Crow struck out 24.4% of the hitters he faced and averaged 95 mph on his fastball. In 2014, those numbers were 13.9% and 92 mph, respectively. Those are major drop offs, especially considering Crow is still just 28 and his velocity has been on a downward trend since he came into the league. In that same period of time, Hatcher’s fastball velocity has increased from 93.6 mph to 95.1 mph.

Crow has had a major issue limiting home runs and if a pitcher is unable to strike hitters out or limit walks — two things Crow does not excel at — he must be able to limit home runs. As far as xFIP goes, Crow rated out at 4.65, so even if his home run/fly ball rate is regressed (and after 233 innings of much higher-than-average rates, there’s no reason to regress it), he still doesn’t fare very well. His xFIP was almost a full 2 runs higher than Hatcher’s last season. While Hatcher will take a step back from last season’s form, he’s certainly a surer bet than Crow in 2015 and beyond.

The team swapped out a pretty good reliever for a not good one while surrendering years of control and misallocating $1.5 million. But what about adding a “proven” guy like Rodriguez or Rafael Soriano? That should definitely make up for the loss of Hatcher. Well, no, since neither of those two men are the high leverage relievers they once were. Obviously, K-Rod isn’t posting the same strike out rates as he did in his peak, but his strike out and walk rates remain very solid. The problem is, his KK%-BB% (a better stat than K/BB) over the last two season’s is comparable to Hatcher’s from 2014. Largely, Rodriguez seems to be getting by on an insanely low BABIP and an incredibly high left on base %. His home run/fly ball rate has been climbing each year since 2010 and last season it was 23.3%. While that should come down in 2015, there are some pretty big warning signs that say Rodriguez could implode at any moment. Handing out $5 million to K-Rod would have been a terrible use of funds considering that at this stage in his career he isn’t any better than Hatcher.

But what about Rafael Soriano? For a few years now, he’s learned to pitch without overpowering stuff and he has success. He’s been able to strike out hitters at a rate that’s slightly better than league average while only walking guys at a league average rate. Last season, his home run/fly ball rate was a hair under 5% and while that shouldn’t be expected of him going forward, he limits home runs well (career 7.6% home run/fly ball rate). He’s also shown the ability to manage contact over his career, indicated by his .257 career BABIP. Basically, he’s a little better than good at striking guys out, he’s good at not walking hitters, he’s good at preventing home runs, and he’s much better than good at managing contact.

He also probably won’t even command that $5 million the Marlins were ready to give to Rodriguez, despite being a better reliever. However, he is entering his age 35 season and even though he hasn’t show signs of decline in production, the team should still have some conservative expectations of him. Ultimately, his output will probably be on the same level as Hatcher’s, so adding Soriano could actually be a move worth making.

But Soriano + Crow isn’t a better combination than Soriano + Hatcher or even just Hatcher + a replacement player, especially when the money is factored in. Soriano doesn’t have much leverage in negotiations at this point, but he should probably get a big league deal. Let’s say he’d get $3 million and add that to the $2 million Crow is getting and the team is spending $5 million on two non-high-leverage relievers. Best case scenario, Crow is replacement level, yet he’d be getting paid four times as much as Sam Dyson, Nick Wittgren or Jose Urena. If it’s Hatcher + a replacement, the team would probably get the same production out of Soriano + Crow but for 20% of the cost. Those $4 million could then potentially help bring in a legitimate upgrade or they could just save for the deadline or next offseason.

The best option, of course, would have been Soriano + Hatcher. Having those two as your seventh inning/low to mid-leverage guys would give the team very good bullpen depth. That, in turn, would mean being more willing to take starting pitchers out earlier if they get into a jam or don’t have their best stuff on a given day. Giving out $3.5 million to those two would be pretty good value especially considering the average would still be less than the $2 million Crow is set to receive this year.

If the team has to operate under strict financial constraints, that’s fine. However, they can’t be inefficient with that money, especially when it comes to spending it on relievers. Hatcher has already been traded away and Crow is under control for two more seasons and there’s no changing that. The Marlins don’t need to add another reliever, but signing Rafael Soriano could help them patch up one of the holes they made for themselves.

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