The Florida Marlins entered into the off-season with their sights set on re-defining themselves as a franchise. The Marlins haven’t made the playoffs since 2003, they’ve had five manager in a span of seven years and they have been routinely entertaining crowds smaller than most high school baseball crowds. They traded their franchise cornerstone in Miguel Cabrera in the winter of 2007 and they nearly lost their current franchise player in Hanley Ramirez last season after he became weary of his situation.
The Marlins needed to overhaul their team this franchise, but not by having a firesale to get rid of their current players. Rather, they needed to restructure the baseball operations of the franchise. And that’s what they have done.
A new team name. New uniforms. A new logo. A new manager. A new, hundred million dollar stadium. A new organization.
The Marlins are a completely different team now. They are the Miami Marlins. After being one of the cheapest teams in baseball since their inception, the Marlins suddenly have the same free spending attitude that has made the Yankees and Red Sox the game’s most popular franchises. While their Florida counterparts continue operating on a small budget, the Marlins decided to make a splash this off-season with their goal appearing to be establishing themselves as a top free agent destination for the game’s best players.
The two restrictions on that before this winter were their small pockets and their lack of a fanbase. Jeffrey Loria seems intent on changing that. With their new $515 million stadium opening this season, Loria has made it clear that he wants the fans in the seats on Opening Day. Their acquisition of Ozzie Guillen was a good sign that the Marlins were trying to make their team more appealing and their actions at the Winter Meetings have only furthered their pursuit of increased popularity in Miami.
Their first course of action was signing the top closer on the free agent market, Heath Bell, to bolster the back of their bullpen. Those who paid attention to the Marlins last season probably watched Leo Nunez implode every other night. Wait, is his name still Leo Nunez? Anyways, the Marlins took initiative with Bell and offered him a pretty big deal considering the other options on the market. This was a sign that the Marlins were going to have a bit of a spending spree at the meetings.
Next, the Marlins would secure the top player on their radar, Jose Reyes, by signing him to a six-year, $106 million deal. Reyes was never expected to return to the Mets so the Marlins swooped in and stole him away from their NL East foe. Reyes is an electrifying talent, one of the best athletes in the game, the reigning national league batting champion (even though the stunt he pulled in game 162 was despicable) and when he’s playing shortstop there’s always a chance he could hit a fan sitting behind the first base dugout on routine grounders.
Reyes brings fans to the ballpark with his speed alone but his ethnicity won’t hurt in a Latin community like Miami, either. Hanley Ramirez is one of the game’s most talented young players but he doesn’t have the same appeal as Reyes and doesn’t seem as personable. The downside with Reyes is that he pulls a hamstring every other month but if Reyes gets fans to buy season tickets maybe they’ll go even if he doesn’t play just to see the new stadium.
Of course, there is the fact that Reyes plays the position that Hanley Ramirez does and that the organization has asked Ramirez, who is hot heated and not a peach to work with, to move to the third base. Ramirez has reportedly asked out of Miami but Ozzie Guillen has made it clear that the team won’t let him go. Ramirez could revolt by playing lackluster defense at the hot corner but it’d be really tough for him to be any worse than he was at short stop (Ramirez had the second worst UZR in the league at short in 2010).
Yesterday the Marlins made another big time signing. Though they were removed from the Albert Pujols sweepstakes, Maimi locked up Mark Buehrle to a four-year, $58 million deal. Buehrle was one of the top three starters on the market and I think they were actually lucky that Pujols moved on because it allowed them to sure up their rotation, which was a more pressing need. And if that wasn’t enough, the Marlins are also aggressively pursuing C.J. Wilson and it appears as if they are the only team offering him a sixth year, making them the favorite to land Wilson if they don’t pull the offer.
Assuming Wilson signs with the Marlins, Miami will have added a closer in Heath Bell, a franchise player in Jose Reyes and two of the best starters on the market in Mark Buehrle and C.J. Wilson. The Marlins lucked out a bit with the Yankees, Phillies and Red Sox all laying low this off-season and they decided to take on the role of blitzing the free agent market. And even though they didn’t get Pujols, they’ve apparently maintained interest in Prince Fielder, who is younger and nearly as good.
The Marlins have a great core of talent as they enter into the 2012 season. While all of the buzz right now is about Reyes, Ramirez and their other free agents, outfielder Mike Stanton cannot be forgotten about. Stanton is the star of this team and after all of this spending, Miami better offer Stanton to a large extension when the time comes. Stanton is just 22-years old and is coming off of a 34 homer year (fifth in the NL) despite having no protection in the line-up. That won’t necessarily change this year but he will likely have more players on base in front of him in a more homer friendly ball park.
With Stanton, all-star first baseman Gaby Sanchez, Logan Morrison and even John Buck providing power, Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio getting on base multiple times a game and Hanley Ramirez possibly doing both, the Marlins have a pretty well put together offense. They will be lacking on the defensive side of things, especially on the left side of the infield, but Mike Stanton and Gaby Sanchez both had top five UZRs at their respective positions last season. Having a guy like Cameron Maybin out in center field would go a LONG way in mending their defensive issues but they foolishly traded him last season. They got some bullpen help in return but I’m sure they’d be better off signing some secondary relief arms right now with Maybin still on the roster than they are without him.
That said, with Edward Mujica, Randy Choate, Ryan Webb, Leo Nunez (who managed to rack up 36 saves last season while also posting a 4.06 ERA) and Heath Bell in their bullpen, the Marlins should do well at the backend of games. And they should get to the late innings relatively smoothly on most nights with a rotation featuring Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, C.J. Wilson (possibly), Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco. You don’t often see teams come into the season with five veteran starters but the Marlins have engineered their pitching staff quite nicely. A lot of their success will hinge on Johnson’s health. He only started nine games last season but if he can put together 28-34 starts this year he will have a legit shot at the Cy Young award.
I won’t attempt to make a super team comparison to the Miami Heat but I will compare them to the last publicly ordained super team: the Philadelphia Eagles. The glaring problem with the Marlins is that this can very easily be a dysfunctional team. The Hanley/Reyes situation is already concerning because we’ve seen Ramirez quit before so I won’t put zoning out again past him. That and having Ozzie Guillen as a manager means there is a whole lot of gasoline in the clubhouse and a single lighting of the match may blow up the whole thing. And if we learned anything from the Red Sox collapse, it’s that chemistry can be pretty important in baseball.
But once you get past what could happen if things go sour, you realize that the Marlins did themselves a whole lot of good this winter. Thanks to a complete change from complacent managing to aggressive managing, the Marlins have gone from bottom feeder to contender in the National League East. Sure, a lot of this activity was spurred by a massive new stadium that simply cannot attract the same amount of fans as Sun Life Stadium and succeed, but so what. The Marlins knew that they needed to give the Marlins a new look and a new feel and they’ve done that this off-season.
So please, Miami fans, show up to the games. You don’t want to miss the next Ozzie Guillen tantrum, Jose Reyes hamstring pull, Emilio Bonifacio triple, Mike Stanton 500-foot homer, Leo Nunez implosion, C.J. Wilson’s newly tinted blue glove, Mark Buehrle perfect game and/or Hanley Ramirez weight intervention.