In My Opinion

Greg Cote: Future of Miami Marlins’ Big 2 will define franchise

gcote@MiamiHerald.comApril 4, 2014 

In Miami sports, it’s all about the Heat’s Big 3 and where they will be next season, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all eligible to opt out of their contracts this summer and be free agents.

Interest and speculation are understandable but absurd to a degree that Wade said this week no decision has been discussed — said nothing, in other words — and still the headline “Big Three hasn’t made opt-out call yet” screamed across ESPN.com.

And that’s fine. These are the two-time defending NBA champions, after all, and the center of the story is only the single biggest sports star in America.

What’s funny is that the team that plays just a little bit to the west has its own consternation about the future of its biggest stars, in case you hadn’t noticed. The scope of interest is smaller but the matter is every bit as important to the team.

So what about the future of the Marlins’ Big 2?

Slugger Giancarlo Stanton is under team control through the 2016 season and pitcher Jose Fernandez through 2018, but, as with the Heat, decisions on the stars’ futures might be coming after the current season. The difference is those decisions are in the hands of the Marlins, not the players.

Marlins management — owner Jeffrey Loria with input from club president David Samson and president of baseball operations Michael Hill — must soon decide how to proceed with both players and be prepared to make bold moves following this season.

The reality is the traditionally penurious Marlins won’t spend the mega-millions it would take to keep both.

The imperative is the club had better keep at least one. That unequivocally is the litmus test if the unpopular Loria is ever to repair his image with fans.

There must be an endgame to the way the Marlins operate. It can’t continue to a constant recycling in which the club cuts cost by trading ascending stars rather than pay them, and gets prospects in return who are then traded as they become too pricey.

At some point Loria must decide he’s willing to spend Yankees- or Dodgers-type money, seemingly everything he stands against, to lock down an elite superstar long-term. He could have done that with future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera but didn’t.

He’d better not make the same mistake with both Stanton and Fernandez.

Best choice

The Marlins dearly need a face-of-the-franchise superstar who will be here for many years and whom fans can rally around, so the face of the franchise stops being Loria.

The best guess is that Miami will target keeping Fernandez and trade Stanton.

This would be logical, given Fernandez’s natural ties to Cuban Miami and everybody’s assumption that Stanton wants to play closer to his Los Angeles roots.

Choosing Fernandez might be smarter, too. He plays in a pitcher’s ballpark. He is 10-0 at home in his budding career. At 21 he is as dynamic as any young starter in baseball and would impact attendance, a factor here more than most places.

“He has all the weapons and isn’t afraid to go after you,” new Marlins catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said of Fernandez. “It’s unusual to see at that age.”

Said manger Mike Redmond: “At the end of the day, his stuff will prevail.”

I asked ESPN baseball expert Tim Kurkjian this week about the choice facing the Marlins. He said:

“That’s a really hard one. I always take the everyday player, but I actually think the upside on Fernandez is even higher, even though he’s just a kid and we don’t know how he’ll develop. Stanton’s history of injuries is a bit of red flag for me. I like everything else about him. He’s young, and he’s developing. But in the end I think you win with ace No. 1 pitchers, and Fernandez is also three years younger.”

Here is why the Marlins should move quickly on each, likely after this season:

Stanton is making $6.5 million this year via arbitration and with two more years as arbitration-eligible, that number will continue to climb if he’s healthy and productive. If he has a big year, his trade value will be optimum after this season because the team acquiring him would have two full seasons before he was eligible for free agency.

There is little doubt Miami will at some point make Stanton a fair-market offer, if only for appearance’s sake, but as Samson told me, “It takes two to make a deal.”

If the Marlins are convinced Stanton has no plans to re-sign, they’d be smart to deal him after this season, when the return bounty would be greatest.

Making a move with Fernandez after this season — to keep him — also would be smart.

He is the biggest bargain in baseball right now. He makes around $650,000 — one-tenth of Stanton’s salary — and will continue to come cheap the next two seasons before becoming arbitration-eligible.

So the Marlins have a choice.

Agent issues

They can take advantage of the system and continue to pay Fernandez relatively nothing. Or, in a gesture of goodwill that also would be prudent, they can try to extend his contract with a lucrative long-term deal after this season.

More and more teams are doing that. The Dodgers just did it with Clayton Kershaw, committing $215 million to lock him up for the next seven years.

It won’t be easy with Fernandez, if only because his agent is Scott Boras, infamous for playing hardball. One of Boras’ guys, the Tigers’ Max Scherzer, just turned down a $144 million extension.

People within the Marlins say Loria loves Fernandez and will make keeping him a priority. But if Boras thinks the market for Fernandez could sky to Kershaw territory, Loria’s love of Jose and disdain for spending could be set for an epic battle.

The ballclub and Loria can’t lose by keeping either of the Marlins’ Big 2 long-term.

They can only lose, and hugely, by letting both get away.

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