It was the spending spree heard ’round the baseball world. In the span of a few dizzying December days, the newly recast Miami Marlins shelled out $191 million to sign three prominent free agents. And that outlay would have been even richer if Albert Pujols and/or C.J. Wilson hadn’t spurned the Marlins to sign with the Angels instead. In the process, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria didn’t just bring Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell into the crowded South Florida sports scene. Loria also served notice that these new Marlins would be doing business in a very different sort of way. With a new 37,000-seat, retractable-roof ballpark set to open this season in downtown Miami, the Marlins have gone from the team with the worst lease in baseball and a starter-kit payroll to a legitimate factor in the annual race for top-shelf talent. And to think, when Ozzie Guillen was brought in as the new manager to succeed the retiring Jack McKeon at season’s end, one of the first questions was about ownership’s willingness to spend on player payroll.
One of the biggest reasons the Marlins lost 90 games in 2011, second-most in Loria’s nine seasons as owner, was another disappointing performance by the starting rotation. Signing Buehrle, author of 11 straight 200-inning seasons, to a four-year, $58 million contract, was a great place to start. But if the Marlins want to finish higher than 12th in ERA as a rotation — which is where their 4.23 ERA and 42–60 cumulative record landed them last season — they will need to keep ace righthander Josh Johnson healthy. Johnson was limited to just nine starts last season as his comeback from early season shoulder woes kept getting pushed back. The Marlins made a splash in early January by shipping Chris Volstad to Chicago for embattled starter Carlos Zambrano. The team is hoping that Zambrano, who went 9–7 with a 4.82 ERA with the Cubs before he was suspended in August, will thrive playing for his friend, Guillen. He’s a risk, though the Cubs are paying a reported $15 million of his $18 million salary in 2012. Ricky Nolasco, who signed a three-year extension before last season, tested the club’s patience with his erratic showings. However, Nolasco still led the staff with 206 innings. Anibal Sanchez has put together back-to-back seasons of 195-plus innings for the first time in his injury-plagued career and appears to have turned the corner.
Sixteen closers have reached the 40-save mark over the past three seasons, but Bell is the only one to do it three years running. That, along with Bell’s degree from the Trevor Hoffman School of Closer Leadership, made it seem a little more sensible to authorize a three-year, $27 million deal for the former Padres closer. That’s two-and-a-half times what the Marlins had ever paid their primary closer going into a season. Juan Oviedo, formerly Leo Nuñez, was displaced by the Bell signing and should become the primary setup man. Righthanders Edward Mujica, Ryan Webb and Steve Cishek and veteran lefties Randy Choate and Michael Dunn will round out the bullpen.
Reyes should be a defensive upgrade over Hanley Ramirez, who still managed to lead the team in errors (14) despite missing 70 games last year. Pairing Reyes with second baseman Omar Infante, who re-upped for two years at $8 million total, should give the Marlins a chance to shine up the middle. Infante ranked fourth in range factor among all big league second basemen, a tribute in part to longtime infield guru Perry Hill, who retired after the season. Offensively, Reyes is just the dynamic sort of leadoff presence Guillen wanted for his lineup. However, the Marlins training staff will have to do a better job of keeping him on the field than their Mets counterparts did over the years.
Don’t believe the hype. No, Ramirez didn’t demand a trade or a fat contract extension in the wake of the Reyes signing. That’s not to say Ramirez was ecstatic about being asked to change positions after six full seasons in the majors, but he’s professional enough to understand what’s at stake this season — both personally and for this franchise. Coming off surgery on his left shoulder will make it tougher for Ramirez to make the transition to the hot corner, but he’s a good enough athlete to figure it out. If he does it sooner than later, the left side of the Marlins’ infield should have ridiculous range. Gaby Sanchez returns at first base after the push for Pujols fell about $50 million short. There won’t be any hard feelings there, not after Sanchez followed his first All-Star selection with a miserable second half at the plate. Defensively, Sanchez has come a long way from prior experiments at third and behind the plate in the minors.
What opened the year as the third-youngest outfield trio since 1990 still has a bright future. Who occupies the middle spot in that future, however, has become an open question after injuries and lost momentum got Chris Coghlan sent back to Triple-A. The former NL Rookie of the Year (2009) will have to battle Emilio Bonifacio and Bryan Petersen for the job. The good news is that Mike Stanton returns in right field — this time as Giancarlo Stanton — and Logan Morrison, borderline tweets and all, is due back in left. That pair combined for 38 percent of the Marlins’ power production. Stanton is expected to take dead aim on that quirky, light-up sculpture the team is planning to unveil in left-center field at the new ballpark. He certainly figures to be the one to make it spin and blink more than anyone else in Marlins colors.
John Buck’s offense was about what most expected it would be after he was signed away from Toronto and the hitter-friendly American League. He still gave the Marlins the defense and staff leadership they hoped for when they gave him a three-year, $18 million deal. That 17 percent success rate against opposing base-stealers needs work, though, as a whopping 83 bags were swiped on his watch. In Buck’s defense, he caught a career-high 1,144 innings and was working for the first time in the South Florida heat.
The best place for Bonifacio, considering his versatility, is probably the same super-utility role he’s held the past few years. However, in light of his offensive growth, he will be given a chance to secure the starting job in center field. If that happens, Donnie Murphy could be the main option at utility infield, with Petersen and Scott Cousins back for outfield depth. Backup catcher Brett Hayes is a glove-first type whose bat likely limits his upside, but he handled himself well in his first full big league season. Greg Dobbs signed a two-year deal in January to serve as the team’s primary left-handed pinch hitter.
How different was this Marlins offseason? Put it this way: That $191 million was just $3 million shy of what the Marlins had spent to field their entire teams the previous five years (2007-11). Most of that change, no doubt, was tied to the new revenue streams that will accompany the long-awaited ballpark. However, there’s no denying the magnetic pull of Guillen. His strong relationship with Buehrle helped lure the durable lefty away from the Midwest, and his reputation as a player’s manager was cited by Reyes and Bell upon their signings as well. The front-office team of Larry Beinfest, Michael Hill and personnel man Dan Jennings has had to do more with less for so long that it should be interesting to see what kind of damage they can do now that the spending field has been evened up a bit.
For all the hype about the Marlins’ offseason spending, the biggest factor in their ability to roar out of the NL East basement is the health of a pair of holdovers. Get 30 starts out of Johnson atop the rotation and 500 at-bats from a motivated Ramirez at third, and the possibilities for 2012 start to look pretty bright. If nothing else, having Guillen as the daily public spokesman for the franchise will keep them relevant and entertaining, regardless of the standings. After acting like a small-market franchise for virtually all of their two-decade existence, it’s a refreshing change to see the Marlins fall in line with such big-spending Miami brethren as the Heat and the Dolphins. Perhaps that third World Series crown isn’t as far off as some had started to believe.
SS Jose Reyes (S)
His addition gives Marlins two of the past three NL batting champions.
2B Omar Infante (R)
Slick fielder with range who led the league with 17 sacrifice bunts.
3B Hanley Ramirez (R)
His .243 average was down nearly 100 points from his career-high .342 mark in 2009.
RF Giancarlo Stanton (R)
Prodigious power hitter ranked fifth in the NL with 34 homers.
LF Logan Morrison (L)
On-base percentage dipped 60 points during injury-plagued sophomore season.
1B Gaby Sanchez (R)
Of his 19 home runs in 2011, only six of them came in the second half.
C John Buck (R)
Ranked last in OPS among 14 NL catchers with at least 275 plate appearances.
CF Emilio Bonifacio (S)
Played six different positions last year, showing up everywhere but catcher and first base.
C Brett Hayes (R)
Has thrown out 28 percent of attempted base-stealers the past two seasons.
INF Donnie Murphy (R)
Right wrist injury wiped out four months of his 2011 season.
INF Greg Dobbs (L)
Posted a .919 OPS in 30 pinch-hit plate appearances last season.
OF Chris Coghlan (L)
Former NL Rookie of the Year has struggled with knee, defensive problems.
UT Austin Kearns (R)
Likely to fill the last roster spot.
OF Bryan Petersen (L)
Was successful on seven of eight stolen base attempts. Likely to be the odd man out.
RH Josh Johnson
ERA has dropped four straight seasons, but must prove he can stay healthy after elbow, shoulder woes.
LH Mark Buehrle
Has produced 11 straight seasons of 200-plus innings since becoming a starter.
RH Ricky Nolasco
Led the National League in hits allowed with 244, one more than Chris Carpenter.
RH Carlos Zambrano
Three-time All-Star has plenty of baggage, but has the ability to win 15 games in Miami.
RH Anibal Sanchez
Led regular Marlins rotation in ERA and strikeouts, ranking sixth in the league in the latter category.
RH Heath Bell (Closer)
Only big league closer with 40 or more saves each of the past three seasons.
LH Randy Choate
Veteran specialist held lefties to .453 OPS before elbow injury shelved him in August.
RH Juan Oviedo
The deposed closer formerly known as Leo Nuñez averaged 30.7 saves the past three years.
LH Michael Dunn
Ex-Brave’s strikeout rate fell off by 24 percent de-spite staying in the NL East.
RH Edward Mujica
Strikeout/walk ratio of 4.5/1 was easily the best on the staff.
RH Steve Cishek
Durable sidewinder struck out 9.1 batters per nine innings in 2011.
RH Ryan Webb
Sinkerballer pitches to contact but keeps the ball in the park — gave up two HRs in 51 innings.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals