Monday, December 19, 2011

Miami Marlins: Contenders or Pretenders?

Recently I’ve heard several “fans” proclaiming the Marlins will be contenders next year, for the mere fact that they signed free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell. While the Marlins always give the Braves fits. Making a pricy splash in the free agent market doesn’t assure them a pennant run. Several points to remember:

Reyes won the NL batting crown last year with a .337 average, but it’s the first time since his 69 game rookie year that he hit over .300. Not that a career .292 average is shabby, but his career OBP is relatively low: .384 in 2011, and a mere .341 career. Reyes doesn’t walk much…just under 7% of his plate appearances. He strikes out more…11% of the time. Health is always an issue for players with huge contracts. The last three years Reyes missed an average of over 30 games a season. His lithe frame and headfirst slides make the shortstop an injury threat every time he steps on the field.

The addition of Reyes has caused current shortstop Hanley Ramirez to grumble: someone will have to change positions. Like ARod and Cal Ripken before him, Hanley’s career may be lengthened by a move to third base. But since management went out and signed another shortstop, Ramirez is mad. Only time will tell if this wound will grow into a clubhouse cancer.

Buehrle has been a good pitcher for eleven straight years: he’s won at least ten games and pitched over 200 innings every year. His 3.59 ERA was his lowest in the last six seasons, though his 3.83 career ERA is above-average (though far from HOF worthy). The long-time White Sock has a good strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a decent 1.282 career WHIP. In today’s market these stats guarantee a pitcher like Buehrle a significant payday, particularly when there are hungry teams like Miami in the mix. But Buehrle has won 15 games only once in the past six seasons, and his WHIP has been higher in the past two seasons. Is he beginning a downhill slide? Even if not, just because the Marlins give him an elite contract doesn’t mean he’s an elite pitcher. Buehrle is above-average, at best.

Will the pressure of living up to these big money deals cause these three to press? Reyes seems easy-going, and Buehrle is a vet. By virtue of his job, closer Bell seems the most likely to crash. He has a larger-than-life ego, so perhaps his psyche can be salvaged. But will his body hold up? At 34, he has averaged over 70 appearances in each of the past three seasons. Like Buehrle and Reyes, the possibility of injury can never be discounted.

Just because Miami had the money to spend doesn’t mean the Braves need to “respond” by immediately signing an elite shortstop or outfielder. None of the free agents or trade possibilities are attractive enough for Wren to pull the trigger on a deal. Both Prado and Jurrigans are rebounding from injuries Both could again post All-Star years, either would be enticing bait at the trade deadline next July. The braves have two shortstops moving up in the minors: should Pastornicky not pan, Simmons is just a year behind him. If Wren throws money at anyone, it should be centerfielder Michael Bourne.

For most of the 2011 season the Braves owned on of the four best records in baseball. This with a rookie first-baseman, two slumping sophomore outfielders, three injured outfielders, and a slumping second-baseman. There’s no reason they can’t go all the way in 2012.

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