Where Do Marlins Turn To Now?

Prince Fielder...doing something here. The Marlins could yet consider him in their free agency, but what other options are available to them? (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)

The Marlins accomplished a lot during their last week, inking three free agents to multi-year deals and improving their team significantly over last year's model. The problem is that while they achieved a good amount in just one week's time, their further plans for improvement were thwarted by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who signed two prominent Marlins free agent targets in Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson.

Many Marlins fans are wondering what the Marlins should do now that some of their free agent options have been taken away. Regardless of whether or not the Marlins have improved the team this season, the fans of the Fish want to see the Marlins create a contender for 2012, while the team is interested in building a product in which the south Florida fan base can invest in order to ensure revenue streams for the future. In order to do this, the Marlins may have to look to other plans this offseason.

So what are the options available to the Fish? As loaded an offseason as it has been so far, there are actually some decent available options out there for the Marlins if they choose to spend. The question is whether they should choose to spend at this point.

Prince Fielder

The biggest free agent left in the market is Fielder, or as Brendan Tobin has been calling him on Twitter, #PlanB. The Marlins were previously looking to upgrade at first base, so it makes logical sense that they would still attempt to do so by switching targets from Pujols to Fielder. After all, Fielder is a star too, right?

Yes, he is, but let no one confuse Fielder with Pujols. Ever.

Player, 2009-2011 PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Total Avg WAR*
Pujols 2051 .313 .409 .598 .419 22.9
Fielder 2125 .287 .409 .547 .403 14.0

*Denotes average of FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement (rWAR), and Baseball Prospectus' WARP

By no means is Fielder a bad player, but he is not starting at nearly the same level as Pujols is. As you can see, Pujols has been the better hitter the last three seasons, and his additional benefits as a superior defender (rWAR has him at +18 runs versus Fielder's -18 runs on defense since 2009) and baserunner (Pujols at +6 runs since 2009 versus Fielder's -17 runs) only serve to widen the gap between the two hitters. Pujols averaged 7.6 WAR per season over the last three years, and even at his older age, he is projected at around seven wins to start 2012. Fielder, despite all of his ability, only averaged 4.7 WAR per season over that same time span, and you would be hard-pressed to project more than maybe 5.5 WAR to start in 2012.

None of that is to say that Fielder would not be an upgrade over Gaby Sanchez, who just is not in the same plane as either of these two players. But as an affordable two- to three-win player, Sanchez is someone a team like the Marlins can live with at first. And the downgrade of 1.5 wins from Pujols to Fielder makes the trade return the Marlins receive from Sanchez even more important; if the club cannot secure a good enough return in terms of a pitcher to compensate for Sanchez's win totals over the next few seasons, a signing like Fielder's may not improve the team significantly. With the uncertainty of the trade market and the steep price teams are looking for in return for a commodity like Oakland A's starter Gio Gonzalez, it may be best to avoid the trade market entirely.

Starting Pitching

If the Marlins are looking to avoid being forced into a trade due to a lack of proper trade partners, the team may simply look to upgrade on essentially its fifth starter spot. The Marlins may be out of significant improvements in terms of left-handed starting pitching, but there are still some righties worth considering. The first option would almost undoubtedly be Edwin Jackson.

Jackson, Year K% BB% ERA FIP Avg WAR
2011 17.2 7.2 3.79 3.55 2.8
2010 20.1 8.7 4.47 3.86 2.7
2009 18.1 7.9 3.62 4.28 3.3
2009-2011 18.5 7.9 3.96 3.90 2.9*

*Denotes average per season over three years

In some respects, Jackson is like the anti-Mark Buehrle, as he achieved very similar WAR values over the last three years but did so with widely varying peripherals, even though in the end his FIP and ERA matched up very well over those three years. Either way, at age 28, it would be difficult to expect Jackson to suddenly drop in value after three solid seasons, so I imagine he will be able to post something around his previous three-year average of three wins per season.

Jackson had very little buzz surrounding him because he was relegated to third-wheel status behind Buehrle and Wilson, but now we should expect teams to be interested in him, and Scott Boras is sure to get value for his client. If Jackson signs, I would not be surprised if it is for around $12 million per season for three or four years, and the Marlins should be at least interested in such a deal if they are looking to upgrade for 2012.

Jackson would serve as a direct replacement for Chris Volstad in the rotation. Despite the vitriol generally thrown at Volstad, he has been exactly what one might expect from a number five starter type.

Volstad, Year K% BB% ERA FIP Avg WAR
2011 16.3 6.8 4.89 4.32 0.7
2010 13.5 7.9 4.58 4.34 1.6
2009 15.7 8.7 5.21 5.26 -0.3
2009-2011 15.1 7.8 4.88 4.64 0.7*

There is a lot that is wrong with Chris Volstad, and at this point it is difficult to imagine him ever living up to his first-round potential. His stuff has always been underwhelming, so he does not have the advantage of Edwin Jackson's tools to keep him alive as just a "former prospect" as Jackson was for so many seasons early in his career. However, as bad as Volstad has been, he has still averaged one WAR per season over the last few years, meaning an investment in a starter like Jackson would only net a two-win gain for the club.

Of course, the Marlins have more reasons to consider a two-win gain as a positive, even for the money that Jackson will probably earn. The team has to be concerned about the health status of Josh Johnson, who never suffered a structural injury to his shoulder but still missed most of the 2011 season with shoulder inflammation. The team's lack of pitching depth sunk them last season, and it is clear that the club still lacks pitching prospects who are close to ready for big league play. Much like a few seasons ago with Sean West, the Marlins found out that Brad Hand was not major-league ready and shouldn't be for at least another season, so if Johnson or another starter goes down with injury, the club would like to have some depth available. Signing Jackson and keeping Volstad and newly-acquired Wade LeBlanc on hand could help in that capacity.

Yoenis Cespedes

There is always the chance that the Marlins will spend on Cespedes now that the major free-agent names have been taken. The club now does not have a severe hole in center field with a possible Emilio Bonifacio / Bryan Petersen platoon, but with the club still interested in spending money, would Cespedes be a viable option? Back when we were not certain what he would earn, I thought he would be a good idea. Now that the Marlins have shown the willingness to spend, Cespedes would be a great upside pickup.

However, the possibility of being forced to overspend on Cespedes is possible, with a deal going into the $60 million range. Should the Marlins be willing to risk that kind of money on a player who has essentially never played much more than at the Triple-A level? Presumably, a $60 million deal would be for more than six years, but in any case the Fish would be committing a lot of time and money for a player entering his prime but still mostly unproven. Then again, with the wide available range of possible outcomes with Cespedes, the team may still be willing to bid on the risky asset, favoring the upside of huge gains over the sure-fire incremental pickups.

Sit On It

This is probably the option Marlins fans want to hear least. The Fish have improved their team dramatically, but no amount of free agent signings will brute force them into contention without two important factors:

- The regression of Hanley Ramirez back to at least 2010 levels

- The return of a mostly-healthy Josh Johnson

Even if the Marlins chase after Fielder, the team will not contend without those two factors present. And as of right now, those are the two biggest question marks on the team. With the club currently still with a very good chance of being on the outside looking in, why splurge on minor bonuses and benefits mostly centered around the 2012 season? If the Fish get the above contributions from Johnson and Ramirez, they will be near the level of contention; with a few bounces going their way (think 2009's 87-win season), the club could push its way into one of the Wild Card spots, and it is all a crapshoot from there.

Yes, the Marlins could spend on Fielder or Jackson, guys who are likely to match up value for their contract offers, but it could end without them in contention and with them owing a significantly larger sum in long-term deals. Rather than doing that, they can wait and see on 2012, re-evaluate their position, and save their money for future extensions for players like Johnson, Ramirez, and most importantly Mike Stanton. Plus, while the free agent crop will be lighter in 2013, it may also be deeper in talent rather than the top-heavy market we saw this season. The club could leave financial flexibility to pursue players in the following years as well.

What do you Fish Stripers think?

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