The Miami Marlins' 2012 season is shot, and there is no shortage of articles that details how poorly this season has gone for the Fish. But while many lament the moves that the Marlins made this offseason in signing Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell, Gaspar Gonzalez of Grantland has a qualm about the moves the Marlins did not make, particularly with regards to Cincinnati Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman.
Those stats aside, the Reds' biggest advantage over every other team in the league this year arguably was secured back in 2010, when they were able to do what some thought the Marlins were sure to do (indeed, what many believed the Marlins had to do, from both a baseball and a marketing perspective): sign the 21-year-old Chapman. At the time, the Marlins reportedly made the Cuban defector a five-year offer worth roughly $13 million. A few weeks later, the Reds inked him to a six-year, $30 million contract.
Gonzalez mentions here that it would have been a good idea for the Marlins to pursue and sign Cuban defectors Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes, who is now with the Oakland Athletics. Is he right? Sure, it would have been a good idea to pursue those players, and the Marlins did in the case of Cespedes. And signing either one of them would have turned out to be a good move, if they developed the same way in Miami as they did in Cincinnati and Oakland.
But was there any guarantee or certainty that either player was going to be as good as they turned out to be after the fact? And, perhaps more importantly, would either player really have saved this horrific Marlins season? The answer to both questions is "probably not."Risky Business
The Marlins pursued both players, and were indeed finalists in the Yoenis Cespedes sweepstakes of this offseason. But it is not as if both players did not come with major question marks. Sure, Chapman has been superb this season, but just last year and all throughout his 2010 minor league stint, he had major questions about control that turned him from a starting pitcher candidate to just a good reliever. This year, he has harnessed his stuff significantly better, but were the Marlins or any other team to foresee such drastic change in 2010?
The same appeal goes to Cespedes. Yes, Cespedes's workout video is fantastic, both in his performance in the video and in its odd choice of editing, but Cespedes also had concerns heading into 2012. The Marlins knew Cespedes had power, so his .200 ISO this season was not a surprise. But less clear than his power was his discipline at the plate, as there were definite concerns that Cespedes would strike out a decent amount and lack the patience to draw walks consistently. Beyond that, there were definite questions about his defense in center field, where the Marlins would have likely had him play. Defensive numbers being what they are, we cannot draw much in the way of conclusions, but the early results from the advanced statistics show that he has been poor in both center and left field. The fans of the Fans Scouting Report have not been entirely favorable either.
The entire discussion by Gonzalez seems like a sort of ex post facto moot point. Would it be great if the Marlins had signed a reliever that has a 1.68 ERA and 1.41 FIP in 67 innings? Sure. Did you see that reliever in 2010 when Chapman was available? Similarly, the Marlins put in a lot of effort into trying to sign Cespedes despite all the concerns.
Tony Pérez, the Hall of Famer and special assistant to Marlins president David Samson, agrees that landing either Chapman or Céspedes would have had a positive impact on the team, but doesn't think the Marlins have any special advantage when it comes to signing Cuban players. "It's a business, and people are going to get the best deal they can for themselves," notes Pérez. "The contract we offered Céspedes was very close to the one he got from Oakland, except we wouldn't guarantee him a spot on the big-league roster, and they did."
But if the Marlins knew Cespedes would be as good as he has been, he likely would have cost more for both the A's and Fish. But they did not know, and they were beaten out, and it seems this time that Cespedes may pay off for the A's. But one can easily imagine Cespedes not working out at $9 million per season for four years, and that is why this wistful "what might have been" thinking seems rather retroactive in its analysis.
One can easily imagine that no article would be written with this thought in mind if Chapman or Cespedes had failed at their stops. Had Chapman continued to walk 19.8 percent of batters like he did last season, none of us would be wondering what would have happened if the Marlins had "rightfully" offered the money to sign him. Similarly, if Cespedes were not outhitting all but one Marlins starter right now, would we hear about how the Marlins might have made a mistake in avoiding his signing? Imagine the firestorm if those players had failed on the Marlins. We would be hearing arguments about signing Cuban players simply to appeal to the fan base without worrying about their talent levels, and the Marlins would be lambasted again.
With the analysis of the "what might have been" thinking done ex post facto, I do not see how it pertains to the Marlins' attempts at signing these players before their success.
Failed Even With Them
But even if you accept that the Marlins should have somehow known that these players would do as well as they are, even their presence on the current 2012 Marlins would not save this team. Chapman, having one of the best relief seasons in baseball history, has been worth 3.4 Wins Above Replacement. Cespedes, depending on your defensive analysis of the player, is having a year between two and 3.5 WAR. In total, those players would be at best worth seven wins more than a set of replacement players at their positions.
Who have we had at the positions? Well, Steve Cishek could be considered close to one WAR and Bell has been as replaceable or worse as can be, so let's say that the total contribution from closers for the Marlins is about 0.5 WAR. We're looking at a three-win benefit to have Chapman on board, and that is on what could very well be a career year. Meanwhile, Marlins center fielders have been worth a little less than a win this season, in part because of Emilio Bonifacio's injuries and the lack of suitable replacements. Cespedes may have been up to a 2.5-win benefit had the Marlins signed him.
Would five wins have been enough to turn this season around? Figure that the Marlins are likely to end the year between 72 and 75 wins. Would making this team a 77- or 80-win team really quell the disappointment of the year? When the goal was contending for the playoffs, the Marlins would have needed at least five-plus more wins than this to do so. No, neither Chapman nor Cespedes, with nothing else that happened this year unchanged, would have signaled the Marlins' berth in the playoffs. Sadly, too many players underachieved too badly for the Fish to make it even with that kind of help.