The 2021-22 offseason could be the right time for the Marlins to add a star name via the free agent market.
When the San Diego Padres first signed Manny Machado to a 10-year/$300 million contract prior to the 2019 season, many were questioning the team’s decision to invest this much in a player given their then-current circumstances. The 2018 Padres finished with 96 losses and a last place finish in the NL West. The following year, Machado’s first with the club, San Diego marginally improved, winning 70 games, but still finishing 5th in the West.
A silver lining for the Padres in what was an otherwise lost 2019 season was the debut of Fernando Tatis Jr., who would go on to post 4.1 rWAR in just 84 games played before a back injury ended his season in August. Tatis has recently signed a 14-year/$340 million mega deal, binding his services to the team through 2034.
Trades for Yu Darvish and Blake Snell to augment a roster that already features the left-side tandem of Machado and Tatis, Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers, Trent Grisham, and the promising Chris Paddack and Dinelson Lamet in the rotation make San Diego a World Series-or-bust team entering 2021. Credit should be given to general manager A.J. Preller who acquired the likes of Snell and Darvish without relinquishing top prospects MacKenzie Gore or C.J. Abrams.
While the Marlins are far from perennial contender in the NL East, next winter could be critical for the team to explore adding a big name via free agency, fortifying their long-term foundation at the major league level.
But where, should the team look to do so, from a position standpoint?
One word, one position: shortstop.
Like the Padres did with the signing of Machado, the Marlins ought to focus their attention on the left side of the infield, prioritizing premium talent to augment a developing roster.
Francisco Lindor appears the darling of the upcoming free agent class. He should earn a sizable nine-figure contract should the Mets, who recently acquired him from the Indians along with Carlos Carrasco, fail to sign him to a long-term extension. Since debuting in 2015, Lindor’s 28.7 rWAR, per baseball-reference, paces all shortstops in that time span.
Keeping on with WAR, the No. 2 shortstop in that time frame, Carlos Correa (26.3), is also set to hit free agency following the 2021 season. And while recent reports point to Correa wanting to work out an extension with his current employer—the Houston Astros—before the start of the season, the Puerto Rican native could find Miami to be more comfortable. It’d give him a clean slate after being tainted by the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, plus his homeland is only a 2.5-hour plane ride away from Marlins Park.
Among shortstops since 2015, only Corey Seager, who is also slated to hit free agency after this season, has a higher OPS+ (129 to Correa’s 126).
Seager, the 2020 NLCS and World Series MVP with the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers, could fall into Miami’s hands simply due to the sheer amount of financial commitments the Dodgers have and will have in the coming years.
Trevor Bauer will shatter his own MLB record with a $45 million salary in 2022. Staff ace and future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw, who pitched to a 2.16 ERA in 2020, is entering the final year of a 3-year/$93 million deal, and should wind up back with the team barring unforeseen circumstances. The team also is yet to pay 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger, though there’s still time with 3 years of club control left before he hits free agency, and let us not forget the 12-years/$365 million committed to Mookie Betts.
The chances of current Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story staying the Mile High City were drastically decreased once the team traded franchise cornerstone Nolan Arenado to St. Louis amidst an ugly breakup to put it mildly.
Story, who owns a 122 OPS+ since the start of 2018, has an unappealing career 28.6 percent K-rate, though he ranks 7th among shortstops with 80 stolen bases since 2016, and first with 45 defensive runs saved (DRS) according to fielding bible.
The last name worth mentioning is that of Javier Báez. While one of the flashiest players in the sport, as seen below, counting on Báez to be a positive contributor offensively over a long-term contract is where things start to get murky.
For his career, Báez owns a .304 on-base percentage, though his .473 slugging percentage still gives him a .777 OPS and 102 OPS+ over parts of 7 seasons. In 2020 though, the man known as El Mago posted a dismal .238 OBP, striking out 75 times while walking just 7.
Signs like these all point to Báez being among the more affordable names of this above-named group of shortstops, but would the Marlins make him a priority? For a team that ranks second to last—trailing only the Detroit Tigers—in runs scored since 2018, committing big dollars to a shortstop who could be closer to Mario Mendoza at his worst than Alex Rodriguez at his best would do little to aid a clinically run-deprived Miami offense.
The team’s current shortstop, Miguel Rojas, could also potentially hit free agency after the 2021 season. His $5.5 million option for next year would vest with a total of 500 plate appearances. While he won’t command the dollars of a Lindor, Seager or Correa, Miami could still use his services as a super-utility player moving forward. Rojas has logged time at third, second, and first base throughout his career before ascending to his everyday role.
Jazz Chisholm, who will be playing 2021 at age 23, could be the financially-safe bet to man shortstop moving forward, but his small sample at the big league level has produced only a 53 OPS+, though there’s still ample time for him to prove he belongs before going in other directions.
If the idea of investing big dollars in a premium talent doesn’t seem realistic to you, let’s pivot to the possibility of the Marlins investing to keep their familiar faces. Think of the parallels between Brian Anderson and Tatis. While not the offensive player to the pedigree of Tatis, Anderson has been an obvious bright spot in the team’s rebuild to this point.
Think of the struggles and rampant conversation surrounding the possibility of a new local TV deal. Now imagine watching Francisco Lindor manning short next to Anderson at third, or a Seager, Correa, or Story, some of the sport’s most premium talents.
Not only would names like these work to alter the results on the playing field, but the general Marlins narrative to the average baseball fan would as well. The Padres of the East? They might have the combination of farm system depth, financial flexibility and front office acumen to get there.