Today was expected to be a rather quiet day for the Miami Marlins, but a furious swirl of rumors surrounding the dwindling catching market in free agency have led to the Fish somehow being a front-runner for top remaining catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The Marlins, along with the Minnesota Twins, are thought to be the last two teams in the running as the market heats up for the 29-year-old catcher.
Saltalamacchia brings something to each team. For the Fish, he can provide a power bat that the team desperately needs after a season of record-low production at the plate. For the Twins, Saltalamacchia can provide a temporary answer to the team's immediate catching void left by the move of Joe Mauer to first base permanently. But which team wants him more, and what kind of contract can he command as the best catcher remaining?
Same Old Power Story
One of the Marlins' primary reasons for getting involved with Saltalamacchia was the team's desire to add power to the lineup. Miami hit fewer than 100 home runs last season, and since 1993, they were one of only five teams that played full seasons (discounting 1994 and 1995) that hit fewer than 100 balls out of the park. Even in the depressed run environment of 2013, that was pathetic. Miami also tied with the 2010 Seattle Mariners with the lowest number of runs scored among full-time teams and was alone with the lowest wRC+ in the same era.
All of that says that the Fish needed serious help on offense, but this was especially the case with the catcher position. Miami's catchers hit a combined .192/.249/.280 (.235 wOBA), leading to a 42 wRC+. That means that the Fish had catchers who hit a whopping 68 percent worse than the league average hitter last season. No other position from any other team hit worse than Marlins catchers did last season. The team was anchored by the eternally awful Jeff Mathis and a struggling rookie in Rob Brantly who was later demoted for hitting worse than Mathis. When your position players consist of Jeff Mathis and a player who hit worse than Jeff Mathis, you need help.
That is what Saltalamacchia can provide. There were 30 catchers with at least 800 plate appearances in the last three seasons*. Saltalamacchia's .244/.306/.457 (.330 wOBA) batting line was good for 18th among those starting-caliber catchers. It amounted to a 103 wRC+, which means that his line was three percent better than the league average hitter. Salty put up a .213 ISO and hit 55 homers in that time span. That home run total was more than all but five catchers, all of whom had more playing time than him.
*for what it's worth, no Marlins catcher has reached that endpoint in the same time frame, though John Buck reached it while primarily playing in Miami
The Marlins certainly would covet that power, especially from the catcher position. The team is set to improve offensively in left field, where Christian Yelich will take over for a full season, but it was still questionable at many of the other positions. To shore up one area with this kind of move would immediately add some punch to the lineup.
There is an obligatory question of ballpark fit for Saltalamacchia. Like Mike Napoli and Will Middlebrooks, two players we have considered here at Fish Stripes, Saltalamacchia is a power-hitting right-handed batter previously from Boston, and any player expecting to go from a friendly environment like Fenway Park to a relative home run death knell like Marlins Park should consider the effect of the fences on the home run totals.
Here is what I said about Middlebrooks's expected power loss moving from Fenway to Marlins Park based on FanGraphs park factors.
Much like [Mark Trumbo], he has very little else to add offensively, and he has the capability to post a sub-.300 OBP and sink much of his power value in the walls of Marlins Park. Marlins Park has a 90 park factor in terms of home runs for right-handed hitters, meaning that it suppresses 10 percent of home runs hit (this accounts for the fact that the team plays only half of its games at home). This is compared to Fenway Park's 103 factor, which means that we would expect Middlebrooks to lose 13 percent of his homers, or the equivalent of four homers per 600 plate appearances.
The same is true for Saltalamacchia. He hit almost 18 home runs per 500 plate appearances over the last three seasons. If we expect that to continue (and Steamer's projection of 22 in 599 plate appearances says that we should), we might expect to see Saltalamacchia go down to just under 16 home runs in moving to Miami.
It is a small amount, but it is important because, like Trumbo and Middlebrooks, Saltalamacchia has major problems with striking out and does not draw a huge number of walks. Last season, he upped his walk rate to 9.1 percent, but he did so while still swinging at 33 percent of pitches out of the zone, which was more or less his career mark. He upped his contact out of the zone, which is similar to what led to Trumbo's increase in walks in the last two years. Steamer does project a respectable 8.8 percent walk rate alongside a Giancarlo Stanton-esque 29 percent strikeout rate, but the point remains that decreases in his strongest tool may expose his weakest ones.
The interesting thing about Saltalamacchia in his decision between the Marlins and the Twins is what could also help sway him towards Miami. Saltalamacchia is a native of south Florida, having grown up in West Palm Beach and gone to Royal Palm Beach High School. He and his family own a house in Wellington, which is a meager 70 miles away from Marlins Park. Google Maps says that, on a normal day down the Turnpike, that's only an hour and fifteen minutes to drive!
If Saltalamacchia believes he can stick with Miami and already has his family settled in Wellington, the move down to south Florida would be a breeze. And if his family already lives there for the long haul during the season, it is not a stretch to keep them there even if he is traded. This is not a situation in which a player is newly moving into a location and looking to settle him and his family down. Saltalmacchia and his family are already based in south Florida, so they are unlikely to move away if he is shipped off.
The Fish also have a financial advantage for Saltalamacchia while he works in Florida. The state has no income tax, meaning more of his value during the 81 home games he plays stays with him. That allows the Marlins to bid lower in terms of dollars, knowing that their salaries remain competitive with Minnesota's because of the tax difference. It has thus put the onus on the Twins to top the offer.
But what kind value are we talking about with Saltalamacchia, and what can we expect? Steamer projects Saltalamacchia to return to his 2011 and 2012 norms and hit .230/.301/.414 (.312 wOBA) next season. Combine that with negative expectations defensively and the team is looking at about a three-win season in 600 plate appearances. Knock that down a peg because Saltalamacchia has never played that many games in a year and you could expect a 2.4-WAR player in 500 plate appearances. Knock three to five more runs off of that in expectation of poor defense and you might see a two-win player for 500 plate appearances.
That is significantly better than the chaff the Marlins had in 2013 behind the plate, but what kind of money is that worth? Let's use the more likely $6 million per win mark that has been recently thrown around and a little less than half a win per season lopped off each year. That would lead to a three-year contract being worth $30 million or so.
Now consider what the Marlins are offering. According to the absolute latest rumors, the Fish are close to signing a three-year, $21 million deal (as per multiple sources, such as Ken Rosenthal and Juan C. Rodriguez). This appears to be a relative steal for the Marlins, who could be saving significant money in getting a decent, league average or so catcher for a lot less than what such players have gone on the market.
The comparison is brought up of Brian McCann, who received a five-year deal worth $85 million, but is almost certainly not worth the extra two years (plus an option season) when considering their play. McCann has been worth between six to eight wins in the last three years at a year older than Saltalamacchia. In the same time frame, Salty has been worth between five and seven wins, yet he would be earning a lot less.
If the Fish can nab Saltlamacchia for three seasons, it also fits the franchise's unique window of rebuilding and contention. By 2016, the franchise should certainly be well on its way to a competitive ballclub thanks to a number of worthy prospects. Saltalamacchia could still be a reasonably decent player at age 31 and contributing to a potential competitor by then. Until then, he can hold the catching fort down while Miami figures out how to solve its long-term catcher position with younger options, whether they are in-house now in Brantly or Jacob Realmuto or yet to arrive in the organization.
What do you Marlins fans think? Is Salty a fit for Miami?
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