Earlier this week, Jim Callis of Baseball America praised Jose Fernadnez's work thus far for the Miami Marlins in 2013, but chided the Marlins for mishandling his promotion (subscription required). The reasoning behind it was simple: the Marlins nonsensically promoted the young player for games that did not matter and cost the franchise a year of team control as a result. Rather than wait the first 11 days (!) of the season before promoting Fernandez, the Marlins made a snap decision and promoted him "full-time" the day before the regular season. As good as Fernandez has been, it still does not justify the Marlins for making a terrible decision about his service time.
Think about how badly the Marlins botched the promotion of Fernandez. The Fish could have waited 11 days and gotten a full year of service time. In the first 11 days of the season, Fernandez made one start. Even if he is ready for the majors in 2013, and it clearly seems like he is, the Marlins did not desperately need him to make his start versus the New York Mets, especially when the early portion of the season is riddled with off days that allow a club to go with a four-man rotation. Heck, the Marlins sent Ricky Nolasco out in the fifth pitcher slot before Fernandez made his start, so they could have easily let the rotation go through one go-around before debuting Fernandez at his regular spot the following time around the order.
But the Fish did none of those logical things and instead made a rash decision that showed no foresight; this is quickly becoming the norm for an organization that seems out of touch with the present and without a coherent long-term plan. However, the Marlins' organization can atone for their sins with Fernandez and make one move that would eliminate the service time and arbitration issues almost entirely.
Sign Jose Fernandez to a long-term extension now.
This is a bold move for an organization that is not known for bold moves that do not tear down rosters. Fernandez has only made two major league starts, and though he has been good in both, nothing guarantees his future. Why would the Marlins tie themselves to a player, especially a pitcher, for a long time without knowing anything about them? One need only look at the Tampa Bay Rays and Matt Moore to find the answer.
The Moore Comparison
The Rays saw just 9 1/3 innings of Moore's pitching in 2011 along with his performance in the playoffs (10 innings). In total, that was 19 1/3 innings of Moore plus his minor league reputation that got the Rays interested in an extension, and the contract they signed was a minuscule one at five years and $14 million with three club options. Here are the full details from Baseball Prospectus:
5 years/$14M (2012-16), plus 2017-19 club options. Signed extension with Tampa Bay 12/9/11. $0.5M signing bonus. 12:$1M, 13:$1M, 14:$1M, 15:$3M, 16:$5M, 17:$7M club option ($2.5M buyout), 18:$9M club option ($1M buyout), 19:$10M club option ($0.75M buyout). 2017 club option increases by $0.5M with 600 IP in 2014-16. 2018 club option increases by $0.25M each with 1) 85 starts or 570 IP in 2015-17, 2) 90 starts or 600 IP and 3) 95 starts or 630 IP. 2019 club option increases by $0.5M each with 1) 98 starts or 600 IP in 2016-18 and 2) 66 starts or 400 IP 2017-18.
If the Rays accept every option, Moore will have signed for eight years and committed two free agent seasons at the low cost of just $31 million. The Rays were confident in 19 1/3 innings of work that they had a pitcher at least worth $31 million over the next eight seasons, which amounts to just under $4 million a season. By committing to the player at an early time in his development, the Rays got a potentially elite pitcher for the yearly price of a fifth starter.
Eliminate the Arbitration/Service Time Issue
What can we learn from the Moore extension? Moore's contract gives the Rays extremely cheap options going forward and still affords the team some semblance of leeway in case of a collapse by the pitcher. For the Marlins, there is an added incentive of buying up cheap options in future years, as the team accidentally committed itself to an earlier arbitration time and one less team control year. Provided Fernandez does what he seems to do best, his arbitration seasons are going to get expensive. If that happens, the Marlins may face a similar problem as the one they had with players like Dontrelle Willis and Josh Beckett in the past, in which they could not afford their arbitration prices.
More than any other team in baseball, the cash-strapped Marlins need extensions like the Moore contract to remain competitive. The Marlins need players to remain cheap and under team control for as long as possible, and that means controlling arbitration costs is an important factor. With the club once again crying poor, a perfect solution to that is to set those future arbitration prices now for a player who is likely to stick around throughout that time. In addition, a commitment now may allow the team to buy free agent seasons they would otherwise be unable to afford.
Display Commitment to Stanton
The Marlins may also have another benefit to committing a swath of money to Fernandez now. Giancarlo Stanton is still a Marlin and should remain one at least for this season and likely for another season after that. But his status on the team, as the various Stanton trade rumors can attest to, is dubious at best right now. The fact that it is unlikely that Stanton will sign an extension with the Marlins weighs heavily on the team and its fans.
But if the Fish want to make a final push for a Stanton extension, there is no better first step than committing to a teammate for years to come. Stanton knows that the Marlins have Fernandez under team control through 2018, but it the Marlins sign an extension that keeps him for a free agent year or two, then Stanton may see a future in which he has competent star teammates by his side as a Marlin. Stanton's team control years end in 2016, but if the Marlins are willing to extend an offer to Fernandez, they may be able to convince Stanton to see through the 2018 or 2019 season with the team, as they will have at least one other piece of the competitive puzzle with him.
An extension to Fernandez is not only an intelligent move, but it is a sign of commitment to a winning product by the Marlins. Stanton needs such a commitment to show that he belongs on the Marlins.
Too Early for Attitude
Fernandez is not in Stanton's boat. He likely heard about what happened to the Marlins' organization this past offseason, and he and his agent (the infamous Scott Boras) are likely quite aware of the pitfalls of making ties to the Marlins. But he does not have the same visceral attachment to teammates traded away that Stanton had when he witnessed the fire sale trade with the Toronto Blue Jays. Stanton knew those players as close teammates; Fernandez knows them as former Marlins names. He has not spent enough time with the organization to begin grumbling about its perpetual mismanagement.
The Marlins would be best served taking advantage of that by signing him early while he remains agreeable, because if the Fish make other moves in the future to once again rile up the fan base and the players, Fernandez may, like Stanton, be less amicable to signing for the long haul. The later you wait, the more difficult and expensive a contract like this becomes.
Display Commitment to the Fans
Perhaps just as important as showing commitment to Stanton is the message this might send to the fans as well. The Fish had an opportunity to send this type of message before the 2012 season, when a potential Stanton extension would have signaled to the fans that the "new Marlins" would have their star for years to come. Now that the Stanton extension seems like, at best, a more difficult get, the Marlins should show that type of commitment by extending Fernandez.
The fans have a bonus connection to Fernandez because of his tale of arrival in south Florida. He was a Cuban defector who spent time in jail in Cuba for a previous failed attempt at arriving in the United States. So many members of the Cuban community can likely attest to a story similar to this one. Many can relate to the hardships Fernandez likely faced on his way to being a high school phenom and top draft pick. He will undoubtedly become a fan favorite if he performs, and if the Marlins show commitment to Fernandez, it could help to placate the fans that felt betrayed by Jeffrey Loria and company's actions during this past offseason.
The idea of signing Fernandez right now is an easy no-brainer. It helps to alleviate fan concerns, appease Giancarlo Stanton, and at least downplays the mistake the Marlins made with promoting Fernandez too early in the season. It is an all-around win for the Fish, and for Fernandez, it signifies a bond to the team and financial stability for the rest of his life. Because Fernandez has yet to experience the hardship that comes with being a Marlin, he may still be interested in being committed, especially to a fan base that will almost certainly adore him. The Marlins should pursue this angle early and often while Fernandez is on the major league roster so that something can get done by perhaps the end of the season.
Of course, given that this is the Marlins, a team behind on the contract extension craze, they will not do it, figuring that there is a lot of team control time left to make this decision. And it would be a mistake.