It may not be terribly fun to consider the Miami Marlins in a comparison with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, but the analogy is not all that farfetched. The Marlins have not played well for years, much like the Jaguars, but neither team was as awful as perception painted them over the last four seasons. Both clubs went through difficult 2013 seasons with rosters that were very light on talent. Both teams are rebuilding for a brighter future, which in truth is probably at least two years away.
Grantland's Robert Mays wrote today on the Jaguars' offseason thus far and why they went to the lengths they did to sign players like center Alex Mack to expensive free agent contracts.
When the Jags trotted out their roster in Week 1 of last season, it was almost completely devoid of actual NFL talent. Maurice Jones-Drew was hurt. Justin Blackmon was suspended. The rookies who would offer promise by year’s end — free safety Johnathan Cyprien and cornerback Dwayne Gratz — were playing their first game.
This offseason has been about giving Bradley workable pieces. There’s a reason Red Bryant and Chris Clemons were cut by the Seahawks. They aren’t foundational pieces on teams looking to win a championship, but the Jaguars aren’t one of those teams. This period in Jacksonville is about putting together a roster with real players, in order to maintain a standard for the next several years of (hopefully) successful drafting. Players like Bryant and Clemons are part of that. Mack is the furthest extension of it.
The way that Mays describes the signings of Mack and former Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks contributors Red Bryant and Chris Clemons is not as "foundational pieces" for the next great Jaguars team. Instead, those players represent respectable additions to a talentless roster who can help set the tone in the locker room and guide the younger players on the roster while still being decent players on the field.
The Marlins made a similar signing this offseason that was questioned at the time based on where the franchise was on the competitive curve. While the signings of one-year castoffs Casey McGehee and Rafael Furcal were truly stopgap measures, the pickup of catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was a different beast. Saltalamacchia signed a three-year contract on a franchise that was coming off a 100-loss season. His individual impact was not going to bring about landmark changes to the Marlins' win total in a way that one could imagine Robinson Cano might do with the Seattle Marienrs. Saltalamacchia is not a star and the Marlins are probably only a few wins better with him on board.
So why did the Fish make the move? Aside from the fact that it improves a critical area of need at catcher, Miami was almost certainly looking to add a respectable, veteran presence with championship pedigree to the roster full of young talent. Salty just came off of catching for the World Series champion Boston Red Sox, and that experience is sure to help young talent develop proper work habits and responsibility in the locker room. In addition, Saltalamacchia can play a more direct role in guiding the team's young starting pitching staff, led by ace Jose Fernandez, by directing their game-calling. These benefits may both be small, but they probably have some worth to a young team, and Saltalamacchia is also going to contribute positive performance at the plate and behind the dish as well. In a way, he is an ideal veteran fit for both mentoring and production purposes.
Mays's point is that teams at the bottom still should spend money to buy respectability and useful parts because losing can be a difficult endeavor for young teams. As long as the money spent would not interfere with the retaining of legitimate star talent, spending that cap space (or in a cap-less system like baseball, just good old-fashioned money), it does no harm to the long-term efforts of the team. But unlike Jacksonville, which currently boasts no stars on its roster, the Marlins do have two talents whom they need to consider. If the team would like to eventually become competitive, they eventually have to consider re-signing one of or both Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez. Stanton's time, in fact, is coming soon, with free agency just two years away.
But while Mays discussed the problem of the "competency tax," the bonus a bad team would have to pay to acquire decent free agent talent, Miami ran into no such issue with Saltalamacchia. The Fish signed him for just $21 million over the next three years, which was a steal given what was handed out everywhere in free agency this past offseason. Not only did the Malrins buy respectability to help guide young talent and convince Stanton to perhaps stay, but they also did so without overpaying or limiting themselves too much in the future.
It may be easy to dismiss the Saltalamacchia signing as nice but unnecessary, but the team will probably benefit in small ways beyond Salty's impact at the plate. And if those extra wins are just what the team needed to convince their actual stars that there is a respectable future in Miami, then that $21 million will be well-spent.