Rebuilding, the Marlin Way

Short of a miraculous final two weeks, the Marlins will miss the playoffs this year. To be writing that sentence in September is a bit of miracle in itself: aside from the Royals and the Devil Rays, the Marlins entered the 2006 season with the lowest expectations in baseball. Their winter fire sale may have positioned them well for 2008, but in March, it looked like the only records they’d set would involve the number of rookies in the Opening Day lineup.

Despite a minuscule payroll and a roster filled with unfamiliar faces, the Fish may still finish the season near .500, and they have a reasonable shot at catching the Phillies for second place. Eighty-one wins for $15 million bucks? Sounds like a worthy sequel to Moneyball.

A full analysis of how general manager Larry Beinfest turned a tiny payroll into a contender is a topic for another article. Instead, it’s worth looking at which teams could benefit from an offseason makeover, Florida-style. If other general managers recognize the qualities of the Marlins method, we could see a handful of teams hold fire sales—with the intent to compete almost immediately. It’s a bold strategy with a downside that can suck the heart out of a team’s fanbase. But executed well, it could turn a franchise around right away, setting it up with inexpensive talent for a half-decade.

The Marlins method is simple. Build around a couple of young (read: cheap) stars, sell your veterans to the highest bidder, don’t spend money on free agents, and stockpile young pitching.

Of course, not just any team could put the plan into action. It requires having a reasonable stock of youngsters in the majors or high minors to begin with, combined with a few tradeable veterans. Preferably, at least one of those vets is signed to a below-market contract or still in his arbitration years (as Josh Beckett was). The third guideline—skipping the free-agent market—isn’t necessary: as we’ll see, some of the teams best-suited for a fire sale could end up with a substantial 2007 payroll.

Indeed, imagine if the Marlins had combined their aggressive deal-making with a single splashy deal, like signing Brian Giles. Even ignoring the Petco Park effect, the difference between Giles (.269/.381/.400) and Florida’s right fielders (.245/.325/.388) would put the Marlins in the middle of the Wild Card race. While it would have required a long-term commitment, Florida’s 2006 payroll would’ve probably stayed under $30 million.

With that in mind, let’s look at four teams who could benefit from a winter fire sale.

Atlanta Braves

Until this season, the Braves under John Schuerholz have done a tremendous job mixing in youngsters to complement their veteran core. This season didn’t work out as planned, and 2007 holds plenty of question marks as well. Andruw Jones and John Smoltz have no-trade protection, and Chipper Jones isn’t going anywhere, but Schuerholz still has plenty of room to maneuver. Tim Hudson has a very tradeable contract, Edgar Renteria is a perfect sell-high candidate, and Adam LaRoche may be redundant. Marcus Giles could be moved, as well.

If Andruw could be persuaded to accept a trade, the Braves could pile up a lot of youngsters. A starting rotation that includes Kyle Davies, Horacio Ramirez, and Chuck James already sounds like a component of a rebuilding team. If Brian McCann can build on his strong 2006 season, he will ably fill the Miguel Cabrera role, and someone among Willy Aybar, Tony Pena, and Martin Prado could become a solid regular, if not the second coming of Hanley Ramirez.

Cincinnati Reds

Adam Dunn could be this year’s Carlos Delgado, only cheaper, younger, and quite possibly better. Could the Reds swap Dunn for a slugging corner outfielder and a Yusmeiro Petit-like pitching prospect? Bronson Arroyo also provides a nice parallel for Beckett. He doesn’t have the postseason laurels, but he’ll get plenty of Cy Young votes this year. And he’s signed well below market: under $4 million for each of the next two seasons.

Parting with those two players—and, perhaps, finally sending Ken Griffey Jr. somewhere he can DH—still leaves the Reds with a strong core consisting of Aaron Harang, a returning Brandon Claussen, and Edwin Encarnacion. Chris Denorfia is poised for a breakout season, and Homer Bailey could be next year’s Josh Johnson. Wayne Krivsky may prefer to stockpile veteran relievers, but a far better course is open to him.

Milwaukee Brewers

There’s no veteran hitter here in the Delgado or Paul Lo Duca mold. But after a strong finish, Ben Sheets could become the hottest trading chip this winter. Teams will be wary of his injury history, but the Marlins managed to get a very nice package for Beckett, who might as well endorse blister pads. In addition to Chris Capuano, who established himself as a potential ace this year, Milwaukee is stocked with young pitchers who encourage wishcasting: Dave Bush, Carlos Villanueva, Dana Eveland, and Zach Jackson, with Yovani Gallardo, Steve Hammond, Tim Dillard, Manny Parra, and Mike Jones right behind them. If a Sheets deal brought in another Dave Bush-type hurler, Ned Yost would quite literally have more options than he would know what to do with.

There are plenty of obvious trade candidates in the Milwaukee offense, though none of them would bring much in return. Geoff Jenkins, Kevin Mench, and Brady Clark are all coming off of disappointing years, and all three could be redundant with Corey Hart, Gabe Gross, and Tony Gwynn Jr. right behind them. One intriguing possibility would be for Milwaukee to trade Bill Hall. Can you think of any teams who could use a young, defensively credible, power-hitting shortstop? Me too.

Toronto Blue Jays

If Vernon Wells is headed out of town, J.P. Ricciardi might as well explore more options. Troy Glaus is expensive, but he has re-established himself as an offensive force (and a healthy one), and Lyle Overbay‘s respectable season has probably created a market for his services, as well. Reed Johnson is still young and cheap, but if a trading partner can be convinced that his 2006 performance (.322/.393/.485) is his true talent level, Johnson ought to play elsewhere next season.

If Ricciardi really wants to institute a youth movement, he could throw in a few million bucks and find a new home for A.J. Burnett, who has pitched reasonably well since he got healthy this spring. It’s tough to judge young pitching when the Red Sox and Yankees are such frequent opponents, but the Jays have plenty of options. If they could add a young arm or two while shedding the risk and expense of Burnett, they may well increase their chances of putting together a solid rotation behind Roy Halladay.

Fire sales aren’t for everyone, but for teams on the bubble of mediocrity, tearing down and starting over—at least in part—may be a more efficient route to the top than incremental improvements. If nothing else, you save your owner some money for a year or two, and find out who your real fans are!

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