As we learned from Moneyball, one needs to find undervalued assets when faced with a finite budget. When looking around baseball, analysts often refer to Billy Beane in Oakland and Andrew Friedman in Tampa Bay as two guys who have succeeded with a limited payroll. I’d like to add one more team to the list that always seems to get overlooked in this aspect: the Florida Marlins. For years the Marlins have stayed relatively competitive with one of the smallest payrolls in baseball, and even with a weak fanbase, have won two World Series despite being around for less than two decades. While we can go back and look at some bargains they got in the late 90’s, I think it’d be interesting to check out some of their latest grabs:
OF Cody Ross
Acquired: May 2006 trade with Cincinnati for cash/PTBNL
2007-10 WAR: 9.2
During the 2006 season, Cody Ross found his way around three National League teams, eventually finding a home in Miami, where he’s been one of the most underrated players in baseball since. For the ’06 season, Ross hit just .227/.293/.431, and although he had some pop, was considered nothing more than a fourth or fifth outfielder. He was not only twenty six years old, but was never considered a top prospect or anyone who would have an impact career. However, Ross has taken off in Florida. His best season came in 2008, where he racked up 3.7 WAR thanks to plus offense and defense in centerfield.
1B/3B Jorge Cantu
Acquired: January 2008 on a minor league contract with invite to Spring Training
2008-10 WAR: 5.4
Cantu might be the most interesting case of them all. He came up for neighboring Tampa Bay as a highly touted slugger, and after putting up a .346 wOBA in fifty games as a rookie in 2004, smacked 28 homers the following year. However, after a dramatic decline from 2006-2007, he found himself without a home going into the 2008 season. The Marlins gave him a chance, and he’s been a staple of their batting order ever since.
2B Dan Uggla
Acquired: December 2005 from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Rule V Draft
2006-10 WAR: 16
This story is definitely the most well-known. Uggla was seen as a career minor leaguer by most teams, including his own, which meant he wasn’t protected by the D’Backs during the Rule V draft leading up to the ’06 season. Despite hitting extremely well in Double-A in 2005, he never earned a promotion even to Triple-A, and as a twenty five year-old was just seen as another guy who mashed minor league pitching but couldn’t handle the big leagues. The All-Star secondbaseman has certainly made geniuses out of the Marlins front office, never having a season with less than 2.4 WAR.
Baker, who ironically was a central figure in Moneyball, was swapped back and forth between Oakland and Florida via waivers before the Marlins finally held onto him after a 2007 trade. Baker blossomed in 2008, posting a .392 OBP, an excellent number for a guy at a premium position. After a stellar year in 2009, Baker has gotten off to a slow start in 2010 thanks to injury.
Primarily a backup catcher in Florida, Paulino has stepped up ever since Baker’s injury, and after posting 1.7 WAR in 2009 despite playing less than half of a season, has been even better this year, posting a wRC+ of 110.
CL Leo Nunez
Acquired: October 2008 in trade with Kansas City for current Buffalo Bison 1B Mike Jacobs
2009-10 WAR: As Dean Wormer would say, 0.0
Although Nunez had a so-so 2009 (4.41 xFIP), his 2010 has been phenomenal thus far, as his xFIP stands at 2.90. He could be the Marlins closer for quite some time.
Those are the most notable names, but you can also look to the entire Marlins bullpen over the past few years as a ragtag of journeymen or pickups who excelled when given the chance. The Marlins may not have the biggest budget, but they know a bargain when they see it, and that’s dangerous.