Fielder, Buehrle a smarter play for Marlins?

DALLAS -- The most important player for the Miami Marlins may not be Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez or even Albert Pujols.

No, it's the guy Mets manager Terry Collins referred to on Monday as "the big horse."

In the first few weeks of the 2011, Josh Johnson may have been the most dominant pitcher in the majors. In his first nine starts, he gave up 13 runs, allowed zero runs or one run in six of those starts, held opposing hitters to a .185 average and just two home runs and memorably outdueled Roy Halladay in a 2-1 victory on May 10. One start later, he developed a strain shoulder. He was supposed to return in August, but was eventually shut down for the season.

Johnson's importance to the Marlins is vital. With the departure of free agent Javier Vazquez (who may retire), the rotation is thin behind Johnson and Anibal Sanchez. Ricky Nolasco continues to be a tantalizing talent, but the fact is his ERA over the past three seasons is 4.76 and his strikeout rate has declined the past two seasons. Chris Volstad remains a sinkerball pitcher who gives up too many home runs.

That's why, along with pursuing Albert Pujols, the Marlins have been in on C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle. They need to strengthen the depth of a rotation that posted a 4.23 ERA that ranked 12th in the National League. But the success of the rotation will begin with the health of Johnson.

Collins said as much on Monday: "If they can get that big horse out there 30 times, they're going to be something."

Jose Reyes was officially introduced Wednesday and as team president Larry Beinfest said, "This is a lot more pleasant than facing him 18 times a year." Beinfest pointed out the speed and energy the Marlins will now have at the top of the order with switch-hitters Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio. Beinfest quickly addressed alleged reports of Hanley Ramirez being unhappy about a move to third base, saying "Hanley is a key to our team. He has been and he remains a unique talent. ... We think they'll be the best left side of the infield in baseball."

Hanging over the Reyes news conference, of course, is the unresolved situation with Pujols. But as the Marlins wait for Pujols to decide on their reported 10-year, $220 million offer, you wonder if that money wouldn't be better spent in another direction: Why not go after Prince Fielder and Buehrle instead of shelling out so much for a player -- as great as Pujols is -- who would be 41 years old by the end of the contract?

Based on speculation and reports, it may be possible to get Fielder for something like seven years and $160 million, plus a team option (just under $23 million per season). For Buehrle, a guaranteed fourth season may be the winning solution and he could come in around four years, $60 million.

Just going by 2011 numbers, Pujols had a 5.4 wins above replacement (WAR) value. Fielder was at 5.2 and Buehrle 3.7. Even if Pujols rebounds to a slightly higher level, it's unlikely he's going to be a nine-win player over the next four seasons. As big a splash as Pujols would make in Miami, the wiser baseball decision may be to go after Fielder and Buehrle.

After all, a lineup headlined by Reyes, Ramirez, Fielder, Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison is still imposing. And a rotation with a healthy Josh Johnson and Buehrle looks more imposing as well.