The Miami Marlins’ payroll commitments are about to plunge, from $70 million this season, to the $45 million range in realistic projections for 2020.
Which leads to the question: Will the Marlins spend this offseason for one or two quality position players to augment baseball’s most anemic offense?
And we’re not talking about past-their-prime stopgaps, like Neil Walker ($2 million this year) or Curtis Granderson ($1.75 million) were this season, but a legitimate middle of the order hitter or two who could transform this offense from dreadful to decent.
Marlins CEO Derek Jeter, whose team was 53-99 through Thursday, was noncommittal on Friday about whether that money coming off the books would be reallocated to improve the roster.
“We are going to sit down and talk about our plans moving forward,” Jeter said. “If there’s a situation we can make our team better, whether that’s through free agency [or trades], we are going to do it. Our job is to make our team better. Having said that, we have guys on the brink. They’re coming. They’re coming quick. You want to give them enough time to continue to develop but you don’t want to block their way.”
Jeter also spoke of improvement from within: “Our players need to get better. ... [With the major league product], we’ve made some progress. We have a long way to go. It’s been tough to watch at times.”
Another Marlins official said the team has prioritized outfield and bullpen as areas to be addressed, with first base and starting pitching also possibilities. A center fielder is badly needed, though the free agent market offers little in that regard. Some money certainly will be spent in free agency.
The question — which Jeter and majority owner Bruce Sherman must determine — is how much. The Marlins this year were 29th in payroll at $70 million, per USA Today.
Here’s one conundrum: The Marlins now have legitimate position player prospects at every position except third base, where Brian Anderson looks like the long-term answer. And the Marlins don’t want to sign progress stoppers at those positions.
“Our mindset may have changed a little bit since the trade deadline,” Jeter said of trading for first base prospect Lewin Diaz, outfielder prospect Jesus Sanchez and shortstop Jazz Chisholm. “Lewin, Jesus, Jazz, when they’re ready, they’re going to be here and they’re going to be ready soon.”
But none is projected to start next season in the majors, and Diaz and Chisholm could be a year or more away.
Here’s the solution to that: Sign one outfielder and one first baseman to shorter deals, for one or two years, plus a closer.
Let’s be clear: Even though Diaz (27 combined homers in Single A and Double A this year) is a legitimate prospect, he hit .200 in 27 games in Double A after the Marlins acquired him and needs at least another year in the minors. And though Garrett Cooper improved this season, there are durability questions.
From a big picture standpoint, it would make sense to energize the fan base and boost this offense by making a legitimate run at impending free agent Jose Abreu, the Cuban outfielder who has family in Miami and is hitting .282 with 33 homers and 118 RBI for the White Sox. Abreu is making $16 million this year, and yes, he’ll be costly.
Among other first basemen, Edwin Encarnacion (.244, 34, 86 for Seattle and the Yankees) would be available if the Yankees buy him out for $5 million instead of paying him $20 million in 2020. Eric Thames (.248, 21, 56) would be an option if the Brewers buy him out for $1 million instead of paying him $7.5 million for 2020.
Two first basemen who would have been appealing before down years this season: Justin Smoak (.206, 21, 56 for Toronto) and former Hurricane Yonder Alonso ( .196, 10, 36 for Colorado and the White Sox).
As far as the outfield, signing a veteran makes sense in this regard: Of the team’s young outfielders, you can hope that two among Monte Harrison, Harold Ramirez, Magneuris Sierra and Cooper can handle two of the three outfield positions next year, with Carlos Puelo, J.T. Riddle and even Jon Berti stopgap options.
But with Lewis Brinson unable to hit big-league pitching — and Sanchez likely needing at least part of the year at Triple A — there’s a glaring need for at least one established, quality outfielder.
Among impending free agents, logical options include Nick Markakis (.291, 9, 58 for Atlanta; Marlins pursued him previously); Adam Jones (.262, 15, 62 for Arizona; Miami called him last winter when he was asking for more than the $3 million he later took from the Diamondbacks); Hunter Pence (.297, 18, 59 for Texas); Corey Dickerson (.304, 12, 59 for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia); Avisail Garcia (.278, 19, 69 for Tampa); and perhaps Melky Cabrera (.276, 7, 46 for Pittsburgh).
A more expensive option would be Nicholas Castellanos, who’s earning $9 million and hitting .291, with 26 homers and 72 RBI for Detroit and the Cubs this season. Castellanos, who was born in Davie and attended Plantation American Heritage, could consider a return to South Florida. But it would be costly; he’s been great for the Cubs (.330, 15, 35) since being traded there July 31.
And then there’s the question of impending free agent Yasiel Puig, who’s hitting .266, 24, 80 for Cincinnati and Cleveland and earning $9.7 million this season.
The Marlins are aware of Puig’s baggage and maturity issues. But one Marlins person said Puig is not totally out of the question if the Marlins can get him on a reasonable deal. But a Marlins return by Cardinals free agent Marcell Ozuna appears unlikely.
Though the Marlins will exercise the $1 million buyout on Starlin Casto instead of paying him $16 million next season, the team will consider signing him to a reasonable team-friendly deal, knowing he can play second (if Isan Diaz hits poorly next spring), shortstop or third base.
Here’s how the 2020 payroll now stands: Wei Yin Chen will make $22 million whether he’s on the team or not, with Miami able to get out of the worst free agent deal in franchise history after next season. Miguel Rojas will make $5 million. Add $4 million in projected 2020 salary for arbitration-eligible Jose Urena and $1 million for Castro’s buyout, and that’s $32 million. Miami might non-tender Adam Conley, its other arbitration-eligible player.
That $32 million, without Conley, rises by another $13 million or so for the 20 or so players still under team control, which includes everyone else other than impending free agents Martin Prado, Walker and Granderson — none of whom are expected back. So that’s about $45 million.
Here’s the problem: Two big parts of the Marlins’ increased revenue projections haven’t kicked in.
Sinclair this year bought the Fox Sports regionals, including Fox Sports Florida, and “that put us on pause for a little bit,” Jeter said of negotiations on a new TV deal. “We have one of the worst TV deals in baseball. We have one more year with our TV deal. Hopefully that will help us out.”
Miami makes only about $18 million annually in TV revenue and hopes to increase that dramatically.
And a stadium naming rights deal hasn’t materialized either. “We’re having active discussions on that as well,” Jeter said.
Plus, the 9,752 average attendance entering the weekend will likely end up the lowest in baseball since 2004. “We need more fans to come out,” Jeter reiterated Friday.
Here’s one way to energize the fan base: Sign Abreu or Castellanos — both with South Florida roots — to surround the prospects with one established, elite hitter. Let’s see if the Marlins will at least consider that.