Winter Meetings: Miami Marlins setting the tone

The Marlins introduced new closer Heath Bell on Monday at the Winter Meetings.

The Winter Meetings got under way in earnest on Monday, but the new look Miami Marlins weren’t waiting around for the baseball world to gather in Dallas. Instead, they were busy setting the tone for a franchise on the rise in the National League East.

A new ballpark, new manager, new uniforms, and some serious new acquisitions are all being set in place for 2012. And the Marlins may not be done spending yet.

Not by a long shot.

PHASE 1:

Prior to the meetings, Miami took an aggressive approach to begin filling voids via free agency. All-Star closer Heath Bell was the first piece of the puzzle. Bell, 34, inked a 3-year $27 million deal that includes a fourth year vesting option. The Marlins won’t have to wonder what they’re getting – or who they’re getting for that matter (Leo Nunez) – in Bell.

After replacing  Trevor Hoffman as San Diego’s closer in 2009, the hefty right-hander registered three consecutive 40+ save seasons (132 total) to go along with a composite 2.36 ERA in 202 1/3 innings. The NL hit just .219 against Bell, who was an All-Star each of the past three seasons while serving as the Padres stopper.

PHASE 2:

As if Bell didn’t send a message that the Marlins were interested in spending some money this offseason, their next big move was certainly an attention grabber. Already with one young superstar shortstop, the Marlins added a second by agreeing to a 6-year $106 million with Jose Reyes. Another aggressive negotiation that not only made Miami better, but it allowed them to weaken a divisional foe by plucking him from the rival New York Mets.

The deal is expected to be announced in Dallas before the meetings come to a close, as soon as Reyes completes a physical. While it does include a vesting option for a seventh year (worth $22 million), it’s interesting to note that a no-trade clause is not included in the deal.

Reyes, 28, is an exciting player to put at the top of the lineup. Whether he bats leadoff or in the two hole, the Marlins just got a premier run-scorer. While leading the NL with his .337 batting average, Reyes scored 101 runs in 126 games played in 2011. The unfortunate thing for Reyes has been his battle to stay on the field over the past three years. He has missed a combined 191 games during that stretch. When healthy, the four-time NL All-Star led the league in triples four times, stolen bases three times, and hits on one occasion.

The aforementioned other “young superstar shortstop” would be none other than Hanley Ramirez. The signing of Reyes means that the Marlins will be shifting Ramirez (soon-to-be 28-years-old) to another position, which most believe will be third base. Whether or not Ramirez is thrilled about putting his days as a shortstop behind him has been debated, but Reyes will be patrolling that spot for the foreseeable future. The signing of Reyes makes the Marlins better, and that is something Ramirez has probably realized.

Ramirez is coming off the worst season of his young career, batting just .243 and appearing in just 92 games, so he’ll be looking for a fresh start in more ways than one. Before you get caught up on that last statement, one fresh start that does not appear to be in line for Ramirez is via trade. All indications are that the Marlins will be holding on to the talented young infielder.

PHASE 3:

With two big pieces already on board, Miami is still actively pursuing the biggest names on the market. Albert Pujols has already received a 9-year offer and his agent, Dan Lozano, spent a very busy Monday meeting with Marlins brass to continue talks that could bring Pujols to South Beach. Imagine a lineup with Reyes, Ramirez and Pujols joining Mike Stanton and perhaps Gaby Sanchez and Logan Morrison to form some sort of new age “Murderers’ Row.”

I don’t think anyone needs me to spend the time to type out what exactly adding the best hitter in baseball would mean to the Marlins, so I’ll be brief. When you talk about rebuilding the image a franchise, making a splash, creating excitement from a marketing standpoint, selling those flashy new jerseys… well, Pujols can do all of the above. Oh, and he can flat out rake.

Winner of three MVP Awards while finishing runner up four other times, Pujols has put together one of the best statistical resumes in baseball history. He’s on pace to eclipse numerous offensive records while carving out a place in Cooperstown. Sure, Pujols only managed a meager 99 RBI’s in the 2011 regular season, but don’t fret, he cashed in for 16 more in his 18 postseason games for the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.

(I really need someone to get to work on that long awaited “Sarcasm Font.”)

Aside from building a strong lineup, the Marlins are also looking to add to the rotation. Left-handers C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle are both available, and not surprisingly both are drawing interest from Miami. There are of course big differences between the two. Wilson, who just turned 31, is younger by roughly two years. More to the point, he figures to be much more expensive than Buehrle, who turns 33 at the close of this coming Spring Training.

Wilson made the move from reliever to starter in 2010, and it’s a transition that has worked out nicely. He has won 31 games over the past two seasons while turning in a 3.14 ERA in 427 1/3 innings of work over that time. So he is both durable and successful, quite a nice combination. It’s worth noting that Wilson’s postseason numbers were marred by some control problems as he finished 0-3 with a 5.78 ERA over 6 appearances. He walked 18 men in his 28 innings of work.

Buehrle is a veteran left-hander who has won 161 games over his 12 seasons with the White Sox. He has a reputation for being one of the more durable starters in all of baseball as well. Buehrle has tossed 200 or more innings in each of his 11 full seasons in the big leagues, twice leading the league in both innings pitched an games started. Unlike Wilson, his postseason work (2-1, 4.11 in 6 games) is marked by impeccable control. Buehrle has issued just one walk – intentional at that – in 30 2/3 innings of October baseball.

New Marlins skipper Ozzie Guillen is very familiar with Buehrle’s body of work, having managed him in Chicago for the past eight seasons. Whether or not that will have any bearing on who Miami ultimately goes after with more vigor is yet to be seen. It’s always good to have a Plan B, especially when as many as a dozen other teams may be vying for the services of the two hurlers. Wilson will be commanding more years and more money, perhaps a 6-year pact. Buehrle could likely be had for a 3-year deal.

Of course, neither Wilson nor Buehrle may end up signing with the Marlins, making this entire discussion a moot point. For Pujols, however, it certainly feels like he may indeed follow in the footsteps of Bell and Reyes.

CONCLUSION:

The Marlins have definitely announced to the rest of Major League Baseball that they will be spenders. With the new ballpark, new uniforms, new manager, two big player acquisitions and possibly more to come, Miami is preparing to make a serious and prolonged run toward reaching the postseason. Teams who will most certainly take note of the expenditure of money and influx of talent would be those who are competing with Marlins in the NL East. It appears as though the Phillies, Braves, Mets and Nationals will be experiencing a whole new brand of baseball in Miami.

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