Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 12/2/11

When the Miami Marlins signed Heath Bell to a three year, $27 million contract Thursday night, the reaction on Twitter was…well, do I even need to tell you? It’s like clockwork; some team signs Proven Closer X to an expensive contract, and the sabermetric Twitterverse nigh explodes with negativity and snark. All this has happened before. All this will happen again.*

While the standard critique of this signing rings true — Why bother paying a premium for closers? Especially when relievers are so fungible and unpredictable?  – there was a side argument that especially piqued my curiosity. The Marlins are now committing $9 million per year into one reliever, but wouldn’t they have been better served trying to sign young slugger Mike Stanton to an extension? They could have use the money that went into signing Bell and locked Stanton up for a considerable amount of time instead. Considering Stanton is one of the best and most exciting young players in baseball, that’s an attractive option.

So I’m curious. Does the Heath Bell contract preclude the Marlins from locking up Stanton? If the Marlins were to engage Stanton in discussions about a long-term contract, what would the deal look like? Let’s find out.

*Kudos to all you fellow nerds that got that reference. I’m currently five episodes away from completing Season 4 of Battlestar Galactica. Frak, I don’t want it to finish.

Before we delve into those questions, first we need to establish the context of the situation. As currently constructed, the Miami Marlins are probably around an 80-win team. If they have a healthy club, get a couple lucky breaks, and sign a few more big free agents — think Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle — they could push themselves into the playoff picture. There are plenty of “ifs” in that sentence, though, so they’re far from a lock at contention. But regardless, they seem ready to increase their payroll significantly with their new stadium, and most reports peg them falling around the $80-95 million range when all is said and done.

And as you all know, Mike Stanton is the new young star in town. Hanley Ramirez is still the team’s superstar and Logan Morrison grabs the headlines with his antics, but Stanton is the future of the franchise. At 21 years old, Stanton hit 34 homeruns last season (.274 ISO) while playing excellent defense in the outfield, making him a 4.5 win player in his first full season in the majors. The Marlins have five full seasons of team control left with him, and he looks to be juuust under the Super Two cutoff.

So what would an extension for Stanton look like? It’s been a few years, but the Marlins would probably want to base an extension around Ryan Braun‘s original 8 year, $45 million deal. Braun signed his extension around the point in his career that Stanton is at now, and it bought out six years of team control and two of free agency:

I felt proud of myself for finding such a great player comparison, but then realized that Michael Jong from Fish Stripes had already beat me to the punch (and done a better job of it). I blow my nose at you, Jong.

Would Stanton be willing to sign a similar type of deal? That depends on Stanton. It’d guarantee him more money, but if he has faith in himself (like B.J. Upton did back in the day), he could likely well out-perform that by going year to year with his contracts. As a slugger, he’s ideally situated to get a large payday from arbitration, and arbitration salaries have only inflated in recent years anyway. If he has another good couple of seasons, Stanton could put himself in a position to match (or beat) Ryan Howard’s record $10 million salary in his first year of arbitration.

If Stanton has that kind of mindset, then there’s very little the Marlins can do. They could offer to increase the total value of the contract some, but they might have a tough time convincing Stanton to stay in Miami that long. After all, with the up and down nature of their franchise history, who could blame him for feeling that way?

The Marlins appear to be trying to change their image, and you could make the argument that signing Bell makes it more likely for Stanton to want to resign with the Marlins. It shows him the team is committed to winning (even if they’re not being terribly smart about it), and they’re willing to put money into the team to make it a contender.

So now we hit the final question: does the Heath Bell contract make it difficult for the Marlins to sign Mike Stanton to an extension? Nope, not in the slightest. Due to their past frugal ways, the Marlins have very few payroll obligations past 2013; right now, they only have two players under contract for 2014: Hanley Ramirez and Heath Bell. Even if they were to sign Stanton to an extension this offseason, he would begin to draw a large salary until his first arbitration season – 2014. In other words, if the Marlins want to sign Stanton to an extension, they have all the flexibility in the world to make it happen.

The Heath Bell signing was a very short term deal; it locked up payroll dollars over the next couple of seasons, but it shouldn’t impact the Marlins’ ability to make a long-term commitment to Mike Stanton. If the Marlins go out and sign Jose Reyes and C.J. Wilson, though…well, then things might start getting difficult. The Marlins will need to decide how high they expect their payroll to be in 2015-2020, and to determine how much of that they want to commit to a handful of players.

I’m not a fan of the contract the Marlins gave to Heath Bell, but at the same time, I’m not going to decry it as a franchise killer. The Marlins still have around another $20-30 million in payroll space for 2012, and they have the ability to make a commitment to Mike Stanton right now. The question is, what will the Marlins do from here?

Most strikeouts by a hitter in a single season
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