Maybe it’s a good thing the Marlins didn’t have the resources to dabble in the free agent market this winter, beyond $3 million spent on Cameron Maybin and some minimum salary additions.
Why? Because it’s difficult to imagine any team faring worse in free agency than the Marlins have the past three years.
And as much as new ownership must get it right on the draft and trades, they can’t repeat the long history of mistakes made by prior ownership in free agency – from Heath Bell to Mike Morse to Wei Yin Chen and others – when they finally do have the money to spend on pricey unsigned veterans.
Before Maybin, the last six significant free agents or impending free agents signed under previous owner Jeffrey Loria have been an unmitigated disaster because of health, performance or both.
The Marlins are paying Chen, Edinson Volquez, Martin Prado, Jeff Locke, Junichi Tazawa and Brad Ziegler a combined $173 million, including $60.5 million of the Marlins’ $100 payroll this year (with Locke the only one of those off the books).
So what have the Marlins received for that money? Mostly aggravation.
The lowdown on why those moves were made, according to a source who was fully briefed on each of those signings:
▪ Chen. Both Loria and all of his top baseball people were on board with this signing in January 2016, according to the source. Why?
The team needed pitching and “he was among the best available starters," the source said. "He wasn't some sort of awful starter. He had an amazing run in Baltimore. [The Marlins] baseball people thought he would be a perfect No. 2 starter.”
In retrospect, the backloaded five-year, $80 million deal was an enormous mistake and an albatross for the new owners.
He’s 8-9 with a 4.95 ERA in 38 Marlins starts over 2 ½ seasons, with substantial time missed because of elbow problems. He’s making $18 million this year, $20 million in 2019 and $22 million in 2020.
▪ Prado. With Prado less than two months from free agency at that time, the sides orally agreed to a three-year, $40 million deal late in September 2016. After Jose Fernandez then died days later, one Marlins official asked aloud whether the team should go through with signing the Prado contract or rebuild instead.
“We could have gone back and said Jose is dead, we are not going to go through with it,” the source said. “The [front office and Loria] got together and said that was not the right thing to do. No way did we think this would happen to Prado. His deal is only terrible because he's not playing."
Prado has hit .227 in 53 games over two injury-plagued seasons. Now out indefinitely with another hamstring injury, he’s due $13.5 million this season and $15 million next season. Any hope of trading him before the July 31 deadline has evaporated with the latest injury.
▪ Volquez. Signed to a two-year, $22 million deal before last season, he gave the Marlins 17 starts, going 4-8 with a 4.19 ERA (including a no-hitter) before requiring Tommy John surgery. He’s now with Texas Rangers, recovering from the surgery, but the Marlins are paying him $13 million for 2018.
“Jeffrey and the baseball people were all in favor of this,” the source said. “Jeffrey didn’t want to rebuild after Jose died and we thought Volquez would be a 175 inning guy, a veteran who could win 12-13 games” in 2017 and 2018.
▪ Locke. The Marlins gave the former Pirates starter a one-year, $3 million deal. He lasted only seven games before being designated for assignment, going 0-5 with an 8.16 ERA. The Marlins source said two Marlins officials who had previously worked for the Pirates – Jim Benedict and Marc DelPiano – advocated that move, and Loria gave the go-ahead.
Benedict (who also pushed for the low-risk, low-money but unsuccessful signing of Edwin Jackson) is now with the Cubs, DelPiano with the Yankees.
▪ Junichi Tazawa and Brad Ziegler. Before last season, the Marlins failed in Loria-driven attempts to land star closers Kenley Jansen or Aroldis Chapman.
“Jeffrey wanted Chapman and Jansen only,” the source said. “When they picked New York [Yankees] and L.A. [Dodgers] over Miami, [then-Marlins executives] Mike Berger and Jeff McAvoy said to Jeffrey, ‘If you were willing to spend that money over those single players, why not spend it on two bullpen guys”– Tazawa and Ziegler. Loria said OK.
Tazawa, who got two years and $12 million, was 4-6 with a 6.57 ERA as a Marlin before being designated for assignment May 17.
Ziegler (two years, $16 million) is 1-9 as a Marlin with a 5.79 ERA and 19 for 26 in saves. He lost his closer's job after a blown save last Wednesday.
Berger is now with the Brewers and McAvoy with the Dodgers.
The source said president/baseball operations Mike Hill shouldn’t be held accountable for many of the moves because “people without full accountability had more power under Jeffrey” than the baseball operations president.
New owner Derek Jeter said he had final say on this past offseason’s moves but that he deferred to his baseball people (with Hill and Gary Denbo at the top of that list).
Jeter, incidentally, must pay Berger, McAvoy, Benedict and DelPiano about $1.5 million apiece over the next three seasons, according to a source, even though Jeter didn't retain any of them. All were given multiyear contracts by Loria.