Why Can't the Miami Marlins Compete With an $80 Million Payroll?

Jason Arnold - Getty Images

The Miami Marlins are rumored to be dropping their payroll to $80 million next season. Other teams like the Washington Nationals have been competitive at that level, but can this Marlins nucleus compete with a lowered payroll?

Yesterday was Email and Twitter Tuesday on the Miami Marlins television broadcast, and I decided to tweet over a question via our Fish Stripes Twitter account (which is a must-follow for all Fish Stripes readers). Surprisingly, it actually got mentioned on the air, marking the first time under my regime that Fish Stripes was mentioned on a Tuesday telecast. Play-by-play commentator Rich Waltz even complemented us on our new logo and layout on our first day under SB Nation United! Huzzah!

But my actual question is what I thought was most pertinent to the discussion.

I think it was a perfectly rational question to ask with rumors that the Marlins' payroll would drop to $80 million. And to their credit, Rich and color commentator Tommy Hutton engaged me in a light conversation. At first, Tommy responded by asking whether this $100 million-plus version of the Marlins was any good, to which I said the following:

Rich and Tommy, being to some degree attached to the Marlins, were not allowed to say negative things, so I never expected a response in the negative. But the response I received appealed to the Marlins of the past, saying the team has stayed competitive with much lower payrolls than 2012's mark, so why couldn't the 2013 Marlins compete with $80 million with which to work?

On the surface, this seems like a fair assessment. The Marlins did compete with less money before, and indeed $80 million would still be the second-highest starting payroll in Marlins history. And another emailer later on in the telecast was mentioned as saying many of the competitors of this year, such as the Washington Nationals, have payrolls around $80 million. So certainly it is more than feasible to say that a team with an $80 million payroll can compete.

But I never asked if any team with an $80 million payroll could compete. I asked if this Marlins team at an $80 million payroll could compete. And that's a completely different question that merits further investigation. The Marlins are not the Washington Nationals of 2012, and there is a major reason why they are competitive and we might not be.

Cost-Controlled Talent

The reason was in fact partially discussed yesterday when we talked about Larry Beinfest's draft record as top Marlins executive. The difference between the Washington Nationals and the Miami Marlins in terms of their ability to compete with an $80 million payroll comes down to cost-controlled talent. Take a look at these figures of top players on the respective teams in terms of FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement and salary in the 2012 season.

Rank Marlins fWAR Salary ($mil) Nationals fWAR Salary ($mil)
1 Giancarlo Stanton 5.4 0.5 Gio Gonzalez 5.3 3.3
2 Jose Reyes 4.6 10 Ian Desmond 5.1 0.5
3 Josh Johnson 3.7 13.75 Ryan Zimmerman 4.7 12
4 Justin Ruggiano 3.0 0.4 Stephen Strasburg 4.3 3
5 Ricky Nolasco 2.4 9 Bryce Harper 4.0 1.8

The list only gets worse past the fifth player, but let us focus on just these five names. The Marlins have highly-paid players such as Mark Buehrle producing decent results, while the Nationals are getting the same sort of play and better from guys like Jordan Zimmermann for a third of the price of Buehrle now. The Nationals have Ross Detwiler contributing two wins to their team while being paid $0.5 million, while Nolasco does the same (and arguably worse) at $9 million.

On the position players' side, the Marlins are simply outclassed by the Nationals, but it does not help that the Nats are doing this while paying about the same amount as the Fish. FanGraphs has Danny Espinosa putting up a four-win season at a rookie salary. The Marlins are paying the same amount for Donovan Solano. Only in right field are the Marlins actually more efficient in their wins produced, with Stanton being an obvious favorite over the heftily-paid Jayson Werth.

But overall, the point here is simple and it stands. The Washington Nationals are paying $80 million and getting surplus value on their dollar because they have a number of cost-controlled players who are contributing to them at the major league level. Guys like Strasburg, Zimmermann, Harper, Desmond, and Espinosa are all playing for a lot less than what they are worth and they are contributing a ton of wins above their salary. The Marlins' top players, aside from Stanton and the surprising Justin Ruggiano, are all being paid for their contributions. The team has very little in the way of cost-controlled talent, as only Stanton could compare to the majority of those five listed players.

Draft Concerns

And why are the Marlins so behind on the Nationals in terms of cost-controlled talent? The reason for this is the very reason why Beinfest's job should be considered on the line: the team has not drafted well over the last decade. Forget Strasburg and Harper, who were generational-type talents into whom the Nationals lucked in consecutive years. Desmond was a third-round pick in 2004. Espinosa was a third-round pick in 2008. Zimmermann was a second-round pick in 2007. Detwiler was a first-round selection in 2007. The Nationals have turned a number of their drafts into useful parts, and that is a primary reason that they can get away with two large signings like Ryan Zimmerman and Werth and still compete on a mid-market payroll.

In comparison, the Marlins did very little their drafts from 2004 to 2007. From yesterday's article:

Player Year Drafted PA / IP rWAR
Jeremy Hermida 2002 2261 1.8
Robert Andino 2002 1375 1.9
Josh Johnson 2002 910 2/3 23.9
Jason Vargas 2004 822 2/3 5.4
Brett Carroll 2004 324 1.1
Chris Volstad 2005 685 1/3 2.3
Gaby Sanchez 2005 1647 2.6
Alex Sanabia 2006 83 1/3 1.0
Giancarlo Stanton 2007 1472 11.3
Steve Cishek 2007 118 2/3 2.1

Take a look at the contributors from 2004 to 2007. Vargas was traded for Matt Lindstrom and Henry Owens, and neither player ended up doing much for the Marlins. Brett Carroll played all of 319 PA for the Fish before being deemed too poor a hitter to stay in the majors. Chris Volstad was supposed to be good, but he turned out to be as mediocre as you could possibly be (and the signs were there well before Volstad's promotion). Sanchez collapsed in a hurry. Sanabia has suffered through multiple injuries. Only Stanton and Steve Cishek remain among players who may stay in the organization, and Cishek is a reliever. This does not even mention the multiple first-round picks that did not pan out, like Jeff Allison, Brett Sinkbeil, and the rest of the 2005 class of five first-round selections. As for 2008, only Brad Hand has played significant time from that draft class, and he has been nothing but terrible.

Conclusion

Comparing the level of competition from a team like the Nationals with the potential for the Marlins to compete at their same payroll is absurd. The Marlins made the moves to add to a nucleus that was supposed to be here until 2014. That nucleus was cut in part in midseason, leaving the Marlins to try and fill gaps with whatever was left on the farm. The problem is that, unlike the Nationals, the Marlins do not have the pieces necessary to fill those gaps because of their poor drafts in recent years. As a result, while the Nationals did not need to spend to fill in the holes in their lineup this season, the Marlins need to in 2013 if they want to compete.

The current Marlins team, the one heading into the 2013 season, is not the Marlins of the past. The previous Marlins had a nucleus of young players developed by the club or acquired via years of trading major league talent away. That was the 2003 to 2005 teams. Those clubs got away with a smaller payroll supplemented by only some free agent moves because the core was intact. This team's core is being paid a hefty sum already, and aside from Stanton there are no other cost-controlled players the Marlins can lean on to provide above-average production. Due to the failures of the drafts in the last few years, an $80 million Marlins team would be significantly less talented than an $80 million Nationals team, and that is the reason why competition at a lower payroll may be a tough sell for the Marlins.

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