The Miami Marlins have made what seems to be an about-face in terms of attempts at contention status. Following a surprisingly good season for the team, headlined by the MVP-level campaign from Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins have found themselves thinking about contention earlier than expected. Of course, Stanton's new long-term contract has influenced the franchise's need to win now, and thus the team has shown interest in free agent players with the goal of fixing areas of need from last season.
The problem so far is that the Fish seemed to have honed in on either the wrong areas upon which to improve or the wrong players on which to focus. The two names that have surfaced since the contract extension are starting pitcher James Shields and first baseman Adam LaRoche. In the former, the Marlins see a front-line starter who can mentor Miami's young arms and hold a place as staff ace until Jose Fernandez returns. In the latter, the Marlins found themselves wanting at first base after the disastrous year Garrett Jones had and are looking for a direct upgrade.
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In Shields's case, Miami is focusing on a player they feel is a top-of-the-line starter, and based on his last three seasons, that may be reasonably the case. Shields is 13th in the league in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) over the last three years, and he leads all Major Leaguers in innings pitched. Shields has hit 200 innings pitched in each year since 2007. That kind of remarkable durability is something to be admired, and I understand the Marlins' interest in a player like that.
But Miami should not be paying for Shields's past performance, but rather for his future performance, and there should be concern that his game may be declining. Shields will be 33 years old for the majority of 2015, making him an elder statesman compared the extremely young Marlins rotation. His strikeout rate has dipped since its peak with the Rays and Royals two to three years ago, and now we would talking about expecting him to play well for another five years at a cost of $18 million a year.
If the Marlins were in desperate need of starting pitching and looking to win in 2015, this may be an expenditure the club should consider. But the Fish have a good amount of minor league depth on the roster in the pitching department, and the club has other pressing needs to address at this point. Even with the likelihood that the Marlins have more funds to allot than previously expected, the team may want to more wisely use those dollars, which include money for future seasons.
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The other player the team has interest in is LaRoche, who fits a more direct need. The Marlins have an urgent need at first base, and LaRoche is clearly the best first baseman in the market with Michael Cuddyer signed to play the outfield for the New York Mets. However, if the expectations of a two-year, $30 million contract as MLB Trade Rumors projected were true, the Marlins would be overpaying to fill a need. Among qualified first basemen since 2012, LaRoche is 16th in WAR with just over five wins in three years, or 1.8 wins per year. He's 19th in wRC+ with a .256/.346/.458 (.347 wOBA) line that is 19 percent better than league average.
Now, this line is still better than the league average first baseman, as first basemen were 10 percent better than the league average over the last three years. Coming out of a 30-year-old player, this performance would be worth some money. But LaRoche is 35 years old and looking for a contract that takes him two years. At his advanced age, collapse could be imminent at any time, and the Marlins should be less inclined to pay fair-market value for his past production.
The alternatives are present, if the Marlins look to be more creative with their moves. Miami can pursue a relatively larger market at third base, with players like Chase Headley, Hanley Ramirez, and Pablo Sandoval still technically in the market. A move for Headley, with a subsequent switch of Casey McGehee to first base, may not greatly improve the first base position, but would be an overall roster upgrade. Steamer's projection system expects Headley to hit 13 percent better than league average and continue to provide his stellar glovework. He would also be just 31 years old at that point, and Miami would be signing him coming off a presumed weaker year. All signs point to a three-win upgrade with Headley at a reasonable cost versus less than a two-win upgrade with LaRoche.
Of course, the Marlins just offered LaRoche a two-year, $20 million deal, and at that price, the Fish would have a more appropriate contract. But the focus on LaRoche solely due to position speaks to a lack of creativity from the front office. They will need more to be able to surround Giancarlo Stanton with a winning club.