Should the Marlins Spend Big Money on Big-time Free Agents?By
On last Friday’s Baseball Today podcast, ESPN’s Keith Law discussed free agent possibilities for the Miami Marlins, including Pujols, Fielder, and Reyes. Law doesn’t understand why the Marlins would sign Pujols or Fielder, given their surplus of first basemen (Sanchez and Morrison). However, he believes signing Reyes would “change the complexion of their lineup and infield defense” (he thinks Hanley Ramirez could be a plus defender at third base and that Reyes, when healthy, is a plus defender at shortstop, defensive metrics notwithstanding) and “change the balance of power in the division,” noting that there aren’t many signings where one player makes such a difference in the standings.
Then, Sports Illustrated’s Joe Sheehan chimed in with his own opinions surrounding the same crop of free agents. Sheehan’s main concern with signing Pujols is his age – an eight-year deal, for example, would take Pujols through his age 39 season. Given what we know about corner infielders as they age, namely that their offensive production declines and eventually falls off a cliff, his concern is legitimate. Ultimately, Sheehan would prefer Fielder to Pujols, given that the same eight-year deal would take Fielder through his age 34 season.
As Sheehan noted, the crux of the matter is whether Albert Pujols is one of a handful of players in history who won’t decline (very much or at all) into his mid and late-30s. If Pujols doesn’t experience the decline in offensive production that most corner infielders undergo, then an eight-year deal is justified.
Law explained that we really don’t know what that player looks like except in retrospect. In other words, who the heck knows whether Pujols will decline normally or become an aberration?
Sheehan compared Pujols and Fielder to Teixeira, saying that “Fielder is Teixeira without the glove” and “Pujols is Teixeira except older.” It’s a comparison I hadn’t thought about, but one that makes sense. Below is a comparison between the three players from the beginning of their careers until they hit free agency and in the year immediately preceding free agency.
Law had some interesting things to say about Reyes, namely, that he thinks Reyes, had he been healthier in and before 2011, might have been the best free agent in this market, to which Sheehan responded by referring to the fact that Reyes hasn’t played a full season over the last three years.
They also talked about Buerhle. Law likes Buerhle in this market because, even with an 86 mph fastball, “you know exactly what you’re getting” with the lefty – a solid innings-eater. However, Sheehan made a great point about the 32-year-old: he doesn’t have much room to decline, whether in terms of velocity or strikeout/walk/groundball rate. “What happens when Buerhle starts throwing 84 mph?” A move to the NL would help neutralize any decline in Buerhle’s performance, but Sheehan makes a fair point.
Another aspect worth mentioning is the Don Cooper effect. Cooper, the White Sox’s pitching coach, is regarded as one of the best in the game. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs.com talked about Cooper on Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast, noting that Buerhle may not be the same pitcher without Cooper’s guidance.
As an aside, Cameron, in a recent piece for FanGraphs.com, highlighted the eerily similar production of John Danks and Edwin Jackson. Their strikeout, walk, and groundball rates are nearly identical over the last three seasons, yet Danks is perceived as much more valuable. It was a terrific perception vs. reality piece on the two pitchers.
Now, at the outset of this offseason, the Marlins announced that they had big plans for 2012. They’re committed to winning next year and have already made offers to several free agents, including Pujols, Reyes, and Buerhle. However, as I’ve written before and as Larry Beinfest recently noted, the biggest boost for this team may occur via healthy seasons from Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson. Signing Reyes is a defensible move because it addresses a long-term need at a premium position, but other than him, it seems the rest of the free agent crop is too risky.
Sheehan believes that the correct play this offseason is to avoid a big signing, noting that “money not spent during the offseason doesn’t disappear – it can be used later.” It’s an interesting argument that (maybe except for Reyes) I probably agree with.