The Miami Marlins' signing of free agent catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was certainly a surprising one given the team's seeming MO of not spending money. After all, the franchise only budgeted a slight increase in payroll to the mid-$40 million mark after a year spent at $38 million. The Marlins were set to be not competitive for another year in 2014 before a flurry of prospects arrive in the big leagues. As we asked in the question of Mike Napoli and the value of wins, why should Miami sacrifice a free agent's best years in losing before the team's ascent?
Well, unlike in the case of Napoli, Miami is not wasting the tail end of a player's prime. Saltalamacchia is no spring chicken at age 29, but he is three years younger than Napoli and far more likely to at least hold steady on his production for the next year or so before seeing some decline. He is a better candidate to be at around the same level at the end of his three-year pact than Napoli would have been at the end of his speculated four-year contract.
And for the Marlins, the differences in both length and size of those deals were also important. Napoli was looking for at least $13 million annually over the next three to four seasons. Saltalamacchia eventually got just $7 million annually. The differences between those two contracts could have added up to $21 million, the size of Saltalamacchia's entire contract, if Napoli had gotten a fourth year at $13 million a season. Using a player's best years on losing teams at $7 million is not great, but at $13 million, it is a damn near travesty of money thrown down the drain.
And for a number of reasons, the Marlins probably did not feel like they were fully sacrificing those seasons for Saltalamacchia that came before 2016.
The Marlins could use a replacement for incumbent first baseman Logan Morrison, but there is a world you can imagine where Morrison develops into an acceptable player at arbitration prices and the Marlins go year-to-year with him. Given the performance of the team's catching prospects and the current presence of Jeff Mathis in the starting lineup, the Marlins knew that there was no such rosy opportunity awaiting without some move for a catching replacement. Yes, the team will still sacrifice at least the 2014 season as a losing cause from the onset unless another set of major moves is made. But there is some value in being more respectable and putting out an improved product.
The Marlins' likely improvement with both Napoli and Saltalamacchia moves might have been similar, but at least there is upside in saving the money at first base and trying Morrison again. The Marlins signed Saltalamacchia knowing full well that they just added two wins to the team's previous likely total simply because there is no upside in a Mathis-anchored catching rotation. The offense was just to bleak for the Fish to go for a repeat, even in a season with nothing at stake.
Respectable Showing for Stanton
The aspect of respectability extends beyond merely grabbing meaningless 2014 wins. Like mentioned in the question of Napoli, perhaps the Marlins feel the reason to secure their present catching situation is to appeal to their budding superstar right fielder. Giancarlo Stanton is likely still weighing the possibility of signing a long-term extension with the Marlins, just as the Fish are contemplating offering such a deal. Of course, Miami should jump at the chance to send over a truckload of cash now to Stanton to secure him for six seasons, because it would greatly help the odds of the franchise's stability. But in order to make sure he agrees, the team likely needs to put up a goof faith effort on their part.
The last few seasons have not shown that good faith effort. Miami angered Stanton with its November fire sale trade of last year, and it did not help matters when it appeared to be skimping on salary again for this coming season. The Saltalamacchia signing does two things to help rectify that image:
1) It shows that Miami is willing to spend to make gains on the roster
2) It shows that Miami cares about building a winning environment around Stanton, even in losing times.
Perhaps moving from a 62-win team to a 65-win team does not seem helpful, but the fact that the team is willing to try and move the win total up with their cash is a sign that they will build around Stanton. Securing the present victories for Miami may help tilt the scales a little in their favor for signing Stanton to an extension.
For example. the Pittsburgh Pirates bought low on A.J. Burnett before signing Andrew McCutchen to a long-term extension. It was a chance offering for a player with questionable upside coming at a cheap cost, not unlike the one Miami got in Saltalamacchia. The Pirates were not expected to compete that year, but McCutchen still agreed to a contract. Maybe the good faith showing of acquiring Burnett on a cheap trade showed that the Pirates would be willing to spend and make incremental gains. Along with the idea that prospect help is on the way, it may have contributed to McCutchen's future in Pittsburgh.
The Marlins are hoping that very same will happen for Stanton.
The Competitive Future
The best part about this signing and why it trumps a Napoli offering is that, unlike with Napoli, Saltalamacchia is far less likely to be a useless husk by the end of his very reasonable short-term deal. In 2016, when the Marlins assume the 2000-2001 Marlins' position as "team on the verge of playoff contention," Miami can feel decently confident that it will still have a starting catcher by then. Saltalamacchia at age 31 is far less likely to suffer a complete collapse than Napoli would have been at age 34. And if the cards fall in just the right way for Miami, Saltalamacchia's added win could be the tipping point towards putting them in true contender status.
But even if Miami only reaches .500 or a bit worse by that time, Saltalamacchia would have still done his job to buy Miami time to find a replacement. It is possible that the 24-year-old Rob Brantly or 22-year-old Jacob Realmuto could be the catchers of the future, but just need more seasoning. It is equally possible that Miami just needs a few more seasons to find the right player. Saltalamacchia can fill a respectable hole in their roster and maybe contribute to a competitive future Marlins team in the process.
In many ways, the Fish's signing of Saltalamacchia did a decent job of securing the present and the future of the team's catching situation. Salty will not put Miami in the playoffs now or perhaps ever in his time with the Fish, but he might contribute just enough now and in 2016 to help the team accomplish its other goals.
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