This season is a critical one for the Miami Marlins, who have made a goal of becoming a competitive franchise after signing Giancarlo Stanton to the richest contract in American sports history. The Fish have an obvious goal: to surround Stanton with talent and achieve success this season. To that end, they have supplemented the roster with names like Mat Latos, Dee Gordon, Michael Morse, and Martin Prado via trades and free agent signings.
The one big name tied to the Marlins who is still out in the free agent market is James Shields, in whom the Marlins are still interested. Shields and the Marlins have been tied for some time in rumors, but the Marlins may not have interest in him due to the ongoing concerns about long-term salary. The 33-year-old Shields had been looking at a five-year contract in excess of $100 million, and the Marlins were definitely not interested at that level of salary. The club still has the $10 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers that it owes to Dan Haren, whom the team would be interested in trading. But the club is currently unequipped to handle any more salary.
The case for signing Shields is that it provides an immediate upgrade to the roster in 2015. However, as noted by both Jonah Keri of Grantland and Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, the Marlins are attempting to avoid the fate of the 2012 roster and provide a measured buildup of payroll towards success.
The Marlins have done a better job of staggering commitments in their latest buildup — right-hander Mat Latos is under one more year of control, infielder Martin Prado and outfielder Michael Morse two. Even right fielder Giancarlo Stanton's 13-year, $325 million extension is designed to fit the team's new financial model.
The team, then, is embarking upon a measured buildup, not another all-in frenzy.
This idea is rooted in a concept that is important for a small-market team like the Fish. The Marlins wisely should avoid long-term commitments to non-stars. This problem is not as prevalent in baseball as it would be in capped leagues like the NFL and NBA, where a long-term commitment can sink a franchise's flexibility. But when dealing with a small market team that has limited payroll, this is essentially a salary cap problem. Signing a guy to a big deal, only to have him falter badly, is less of a mistake for cash-flush franchises like the Dodgers and New York Yankees, but far more damaging to clubs like the Marlins.
As a result, the Marlins have kept their last few forays to the free agent market short and cheap. The longest commitment in the last two years was a very reasonable three-year deal with Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Morse's deal was a two-year contract. Even the trades brought in talent who were either committed for cheaper contracts over a longer term (Gordon is under team control for four seasons including 2015) or here for only a short time. None of the players whom the team brought in were stars, so none were deserving of major contract lengths.
The story of Shields is a different tale. As a premiere free agent, he may have to be signed to a five-year contract in order to bring him aboard. The Marlins are understandably anxious about signing a player that old to that long a deal when he is not a star. They are wary of running into a repeat of the Jose Reyes or Mark Buehrle contracts, other long-term deals that were not deemed worthwhile a year later and forced the ownership's hand.
This story is all based on whether you buy into the Marlins' payroll restriction concerns. The Fish signed Stanton to a huge deal that was nicely backloaded with the intent to fit as much talent around him as possible, but Jeffrey Loria would prefer to make (or lose, depending on their real financial situation) a certain amount of money and will not accept anything less. This year, the team has a set budget, and they are unlikely to stretch it out, even if it means to add extra wins to the team's reasonable chances at the playoffs.
If the team's payroll restrictions and budgets are to remain on the low end, it needs to be wise about avoiding long-term commitments to guys who are not stars. The other end of the spectrum is to make long-term commitments to the star players. The team has recognized a core around Stanton, as it made attempts at signing Jose Fernandez, Christian Yelich, and Adeiny Hechavarria to long-term deals. However, these efforts have all been in vain so far, as the team is off with Yelich and Hechavarria has already rejected an offer. These long-term commitments to players like Yelich and Fernandez are designed to save money for the franchise and avoid having to pay huge arbitration and free agent costs for wins.
The team has to make some of these types of commitments, as long as they identify the right players. The Marlins are smart as a small-market team to avoid long-term deals with mediocre names, but eventually you have to spend money to get talent. The Marlins have to find the right talent, whether it is a major free agent addition or someone in-house. The money eventually does have to be invested.