According to numerous reports, the Miami Marlins have been making a run at Albert Pujols so far this offseason. They met with his agent early on in the free agency period, and they offered Pujols a nine year contract with a total value less than $200 million. This offer comes in lower than the St. Louis Cardinals appear willing to offer, so it could be that the Marlins will not actually sign Pujols. Then again, who knows right now? The Marlins could still counter with a higher offer, and they appear serious about making a play for Pujols.
All these rumors bring up some important questions, though. How much would Albert Pujols improve the Marlins? Would he turn them into a contender? And would he create a fan frenzy and attract more fans to the ballpark due to his mere presence? The Marlins don't have the payroll space to sign Pujols and other big free agents, so would he be enough all by himself?
The first two questions are the easiest to answer. When Bradley Woodrum analyzed the Marlins' projected roster for the 2012 season, he found that the Marlins are around an 82-win team if they merely maintain the status quo and have some good luck with injuries. Adding Pujols would obviously improve their team, but he would only provide the Marlins with a 3-4 win boost -- enough to make the Marlins a competitive team, but likely not good enough for them to make a serious run at the playoffs in the difficult NL East.
Even if Pujols can't turn the Marlins into contenders with his mere presence, though, he would surely help the Marlins sell more tickets....right? He's the best player in the majors, and signing him would show the Miami area that the Marlins are serious about competing and raising their payroll. Not to mention that Pujols is Dominican-American, and the Miami area is dominated by Hispanic culture. He would be the perfect player for the Marlins to market.
Well, according to recent research by Dave Cameron at USS Mariner, that may not be the case:
Overall, the story over the last decade is pretty clear - when a mid-market team "shows that they're serious about winning" by throwing a lot of money at a marquee free agent, it is usually followed by a small attendance boost in the first year of the deal. If the team doesn't actually win in that first year, however, those fans flee very quickly, and the bad will fostered by a huge contract gone bad may actually have a negative effect on attendance.
Cameron found that big name free agents typically boost attendance around 10-20% in the first year of a contract, but that boost drops off quickly after the first year. Fans come to see winning teams more so than big name players, so unless a team is competitive, a key free agent won't have any long-term effects on attendance. Even in a "perfect storm" situation like Ken Griffey Jr. signing with the Reds -- or, theoretically, Pujols signing with the Marlins -- the impact of a big name signing is short lived:
The Reds got the biggest boost after acquiring Junior, but that was basically the perfect storm of a situation - he was a local hero whose Dad had starred for the franchise, and was the most marketable baseball player on the planet at the time. Perhaps no team could ever pitch their fans a more attractive acquisition than Griffey "coming home" to play in Cincinnati and follow in his father's footsteps. The pitch worked, and they drew an additional half million fans [an increase of 25%] in his first year with the Reds.
It's worth noting, however, that the burst was extremely short lived. The Reds won 85 games in Griffey's first year, but the fans didn't stick around in 2001, and their attendance dropped back to 1.88 million, lower than it was the year before they acquired him.
That sounds remarkable similar to what could happen with the Marlins if they signed Pujols. He'd be a highly marketable player in Miami, so the Marlins could see up to a 25% boost in attendance in 2012, but he wouldn't be enough to push the Marlins much higher than 85 wins.
With their new ballpark opening, the Marlins are already expected to see an increase in their attendance next year. New stadiums boost attendance around 32% to 37% in their opening seasons, and the effects linger for up to 10 years. When you look at it this way, the Marlins are essentially shopping this offseason with the money they have "banked" in extra attendance over the next 10 seasons. Should they invest all this money in Albert Pujols, or would they be better served looking at other free agents like Jose Reyes?
As attractive as Pujols is, the Marlins should let him go. He wouldn't be enough to make them a competitive team, and he'd suck up so much payroll that it'd make it difficult for the Marlins to improve their team any further. He'd also be under contract for nine seasons -- well into his late-30s -- and his contract would likely become a burden on their payroll. He would create a surge in attendance in 2012, but after that, the Marlins wouldn't be competitive enough to prevent that surge from fading.
Instead, the safer route would be to diversify. The Marlins could take the money they would spend on Pujols and spread it out among a number of players. They could sign Jose Reyes, Yoenis Cespedes, and Mark Buehrle for less total money than they'd have to pay Pujols, and adding those three would potentially make the Marlins around a 90-win team -- enough to compete for the playoffs with some good luck.
The most recent reports have suggested that the Marlins "aren't serious bidders" for Albert Pujols. If that's the case, Marlins fans should take heart. Their club might be making a smart decision after all.