Imagine a world where the Miami Marlins became players in the free agent market, particularly for a first baseman.
I'm serious, guys.
Which first baseman would be the best fit for the Fish?
Consider the question carefully.
It is not a stretch to think that the best first baseman on the market is World Series champion Mike Napoli. Napoli is fresh off of a .259/.360/.482 (.367 wOBA) campaign and a four-win season according to most metrics. He supposedly had an excellent year defensively at first base. He mashed 23 homers, marking the sixth straight season in which he has hit 20 or more jacks. And he happens to be the best first baseman by a country mile, ahead of lesser names like Justin Morneau and James Loney by a substantial amount. Even at age 32, Napoli is clearly ahead of the rest of the pack. And the Marlins apparently are interested in Napoli, who is a south Florida native.
But I didn't ask who the best free agent first baseman was. I asked who was the best fit for the Marlins among those players.
But the franchise makes up for a good deal of that with their improvement on the other side of the ball. According to WAR, this would be a 16-win improvement on offense when combining the new additions and regression for players like Stanton and Morrison. Last year's club totaled 13 WAR and won 62 games. This 2014 projected roster is expected to put up 26.4 WAR, putting the total improvement at 13 wins. If you just added that to last year's paltry total, we would expect a 75-win season.
Now, consider that that is a 75-win season with the additions of Hank Conger, Howie Kendrick, and Juan Uribe, all players expected to be 2.5-win or so contributors next season. Even if you do not believe the projection, you could easily see all of these guys giving six WAR next year in total, yielding a 73-win season when considering the loss of Henderson Alvarez via trade.
In the article, I mention that this does build towards a nice foundation in 2015, especially if Miami's prospects like Christian Yelich, Jake Marisnick, and Marcell Ozuna develop well. But this was a 13-win addition that was made to the roster, with one player being a long-term asset under control for four years. Yes, Kendrick and Uribe would have been short-term additions of two years or less, but the benefit of our plan is that it at least added wins well into the future. Furthermore, the sheer number of wins puts the Marlins in a reasonable spot in 2015. With a two-win second baseman and a 2.5-win catcher along with the expected infusions of talent of players like Colin Moran, Andrew Heaney, and other starting pitching prospects, Miami could, with optimism, at least crawl into .500 status or better.
Signing Napoli would also improve Miami, but significantly less so. Last year's team was probably a 62-win squad by the way they played, and adding just Napoli over the deposed Logan Morrison would not turn the franchise into a winner. Steamer projects Napoli to produce 2.4 wins next season. Even if you think he is a three-win player, the system projects Morrison to only be about two wins worse than Napoli. This improvement would yield a 65-win team based on last year's play alone. Factor in a few additions in wins here and there, such as Stanton's regression and some full-time contributions from Yelich and company and you may look at roughly a 68-win squad.
The question here is what is the value of going to 68 wins in 2014?
Napoli is old enough that you would expect a slow decline on a three-year contract. That three-year contract could be worth anywhere from $40 million to $51 million, depending on how you value wins. But the best year for Napoli would be the first one, and that one would be completely wasted on a losing team. By the time the Marlins are competitive, Napoli may not be an average player. This does not even consider the risk involved in his known chronic medical condition of avascular hip necrosis.
The Marlins are interested primarily in long-term options at areas of need. Signing Napoli to a three- or four-year deal, however, is not really finding a long-term solution because of the likelihood of his decline. Is it really worth a potentially $50 million investment to make the club marginally better in 2014? How much better will Napoli be over another cheaper replacement in a few years? These are relevant, important questions to consider if the Fish will sink between $13 million and $17 million a year on him.
Consider an alternative for the short-term solution plan. Loney is a worse player than Napoli, but his cost may make up for that. Loney hit .299/.348/.430 (.339 wOBA) last season and is a career .285/.340/.421 (.330 wOBA) hitter. He has a long-standing, strong reputation with the glove at first base, though there is strong disagreement between the metrics over the course of his career. But perhaps most importantly, Loney may be willing to take a shorter contract with a lot less money. For a player projected to put up a 1.2-win season next year with some decent potential for more, Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors expects him to earn a two-year, $16 million contract.
Given the price and projection for Loney, another alternative is to simply save the money and go for Morrison at first base as well. Morrison has a very similar projection as of right now, though he has a far sketchier track record of success. Either way, both cases allow the Marlins to find other ways to invest their cash while not paying too much for meaningless 2014 wins.
The counterpoint to consider is that Miami believes next year's wins are not meaningless, but not for reasons of competitiveness. Miami may believe it needs to prove itself to outside free agents and to Giancarlo Stanton that it is serious about team building. Perhaps they believe that an honest attempt at a climb to respectability next season will convince Stanton to stay on long term. It may also convince fellow free agents that Miami is ready to do business legitimately, much in the way the Washington Nationals justified their harsh overpay of Jayson Werth.
The Stanton argument looms large in any attempt to sign Napoli or another major free agent. No single free agent will improve this franchise to a respectable loss total. Miami's only reasoning is to placate Stanton, and there is a belief among Fish fans that that relationship may be irreparable. The same goes for the relationship between free agents and Miami, no matter what David Samson and the ownership thinks. Can signing one player like Napoli to a big deal overcome those problems? Will it help Miami in the long-term with regards to Stanton? I have my doubts, but with the news that the Fish are interested in Napoli, the offseason has certainly gotten more interesting.