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Can the Marlins Really Sign Reyes, Pujols and Buehrle?

The Florida Marlins have never been known for having deep pockets. The team never enters an offseason eyeing the top free agents in the class. The Marlins combine talented homegrown prospects with cheap stopgap solutions and, in most cases, deal their players away before they get very expensive.

This has been their modus operandi for years, which makes it all the more interesting that the team entered the 2011 offseason targeting Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle, three of the top free agents available.

Signing all three might seem like a long shot, but the Marlins are in an interesting position with a new stadium, new uniforms and a different team name. The Miami Marlins are looking for a clean slate in 2012, and making an offseason splash is certainly a means to accomplishing that goal.

But can they really sign all three of these players? Will they sign any of them?

Reyes is much more likely to end up in Miami than Pujols or Buehrle but the latter two should not be ruled out. Buehrle has a close relationship with new Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen. He could also find it desirable to switch to the National League. Buehrle has always expressed interest in playing for his hometown Cardinals, but, pun completely intended, that probably isn’t in the cards.

By signing with the Marlins he would effectively replace Javier Vazquez, who pitched incredibly well down the stretch. Buehrle would help solidify a talented rotation featuring Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez and distance the Marlins from their offense-only reputation. However, Buehrle might not find Miami as attractive as other destinations given his career timeline.

The Marlins aren’t contenders without at least one of Reyes and Pujols, and Buehrle might not want to spend two or three seasons with a team on the fringe.

For Pujols, the allure of a new stadium and a new city in which to become ‘the man’ may lead to serious consideration of the Marlins reported offer. Further, that offer doesn’t even need to be as lucrative, on the face, as offers elsewhere. Based on my jock tax calculations — derived from state and city rates and the actual major league schedule — the Marlins have the second-lowest effective rate in the National League. The Marlins could offer Pujols less, yet enable him to actually make more than he would elsewhere.

Then again, Pujols could end up being one of those players that prefers to sign the biggest contract possible for bragging rights. Because he seems like a great guy it feels wrong to associate him with that type of behavior, but many upper echelon athletes grow concerned more with the status of their deals than justifying a deal based on tax rates. There is certainly reason to think Pujols would consider the Marlins, but it’s still a long shot.

Reyes has been linked to the Marlins for several weeks now, and according to some sources, may even be announced this week as the new Marlins shortstop. It has been speculated that the deal would pay him $60 million over three years, but keep in mind that nothing is close to being confirmed. However, it sure seems plausible that Reyes would make anywhere from $15-$20 million per season.

Can the Marlins even afford to sign two or more of these players?

Last season, team payroll was around $58 million. According to Cot’s Contracts, the team has around $49 million committed to non-arb players in 2012 after subtracting Vazquez, Helms and Dobbs (around $9 million in salary). Factoring in replacement costs and bumps in arbitration puts starting payroll around $70 million.

Ownership has expressed a willingness to increase spending to the $80 million range, giving the Marlins little room to work with.

To sign some combination of these players, the Marlins would need to get creative, or that payroll figure needs to increase. If Reyes signed first, Pujols is definitely worth breaking the bank. He is a once-in-a-generation player still capable of putting up gaudy numbers. His intrinsic value related to the new stadium and merchandise shouldn’t be understated either. If it means increasing payroll to $95 million, and ownership is serious about putting the best product on the field, you find a way to make Pujols-Reyes work.

The Marlins could also pursue a trade of Hanley Ramirez, instead of shifting him elsewhere on the diamond. If his $15 million salary in 2012 is subtracted from the original $54 million figure, the Marlins have around $40-$45 million to spend to get in the $80 million payroll vicinity. Suddenly, Pujols and Reyes aren’t hindering the payroll goals. Their added value is mitigated by the loss of Ramirez, but perhaps the team recoups valuable, cost-controlled pieces needed elsewhere in the lineup or the field to truly contend.

It’s unlikely that the Marlins sign more than one of these players, but the team can make it work. It seems strange to associate “increased payroll” with the Marlins, but whether this behavior is entirely fueled by the new stadium or not, we should expect to see at least one major splash in Miami this offseason. How big of a splash depends on the aggressiveness of ownership and their willingness to get creative or increase spending.