Making the Marlins Competitive

Now that the 2016 regular season is finally upon us, we will start to see how division races actually stack up, and just like in recent years, only a few teams are considered non-contenders. The rest of MLB thinks they have a shot, including the Miami Marlins.

With a new manager (Don Mattingley), an all-time great as hitting coach (Barry Bonds), and a veteran chasing a storied milestone (Ichiro Suzuki), there’s a lot to watch this year in Miami. A playoff run though, isn’t expected to be on the watch-list.

sfl-giancarlo-stanton-home-run-derby-20140706-001If the Marlins (projected fWAR: 32.9) are vying for a playoff run, they would have to at least leapfrog either the New York Mets (47.3 fWAR) or Washington Nationals (42.4 fWAR). With the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies in the division, both of which expect to be non-contenders, the distribution of wins could be distinctly top-heavy in 2016. This would leave the Marlins squarely out of contention before the season even begins, unless they can stay competitive within the NL East and keep up with other division leaders.

The odds are stacked against the Marlins, but the talent on the roster is undeniable, and I think the complementary pieces necessary to challenge the Mets and Nationals could be obtained at a minimal price. But there is an issue.

Miami has the 2nd worst farm system in baseball. Trading valuable pieces away in a year when two teams in the division project to be among the best in the league seems shortsighted and maybe pointless, but that’s not what this is about. This is about figuring out a way to make the Marlins legitimate contenders.

Note: Projected fWAR is from Fangraphs Depth Charts.

 Rotation

2015 fWAR: 6.8

2016 projected fWAR: 12.1

Last season was a poor year for Marlins starting pitchers. Only three starters threw more than 100 innings, as they ended 26th overall in fWAR. The absence of star Jose Fernandez for most of the season was a glaring hole. If he misses a large portion of the 2016 season, the Marlins will surely miss the playoffs. Though the Marlins added lefty Wei-Yin Chen, the depth behind him and Fernandez is very thin.

Tom Koehler, Jarred Cosart, and Adam Conley figure to pitch the most innings, but only Koehler threw more than 66 last year (184.1 IP). Veterans Mat Latos, Dan Haren, and Henderson Alvarez are all gone, leaving Edwin Jackson and David Phelps as the best spot starters, with Justin Nicolino and Jose Urena potentially available from AAA. Adding another quality starter is a necessity; not only to match up against other teams but to create depth in the pitching staff.

Andrew CashnerTo compete in 2016, the target should be Andrew Cashner. A free-agent when the season ends, Cashner is more of a rental, but he could be instrumental in creating the depth needed for a playoff run. To acquire Cashner, the Marlins would need to give up at least LHP Jarlin Garcia, if not top prospect Tyler Kolek. The price is steep, but the addition would also push Jarred Cosart into the bullpen, where his high walk/low strikeout “skill”set won’t be overexposed.

Bullpen

2015 fWAR: 3.3

2016 projected fWAR: 1.5

Carter Capps, an absolute stud in the bullpen, was incredibly promising for the Marlins, but unfortunately, Capps is headed for Tommy John surgery. We’re left wondering if he’ll be able to keep up his ridiculous numbers after he gets healthy.

A.J. Ramos and Mike Dunn hold up the back end of the bullpen adequately, assuming Dunn can keep the walks in check. But like the rotation, it falls off quickly behind the top two guys. Jackson and Phelps are in the mix, and both left-handed swingman Brad Hand and right-handed Bryan Morris are two prominent possibilities from last year.

Acquiring a starter and moving Cosart to the bullpen helps. Even though I mocked his ratios, his mid-90s fastball paired with a good curve are indicative for a conversion to the bullpen. To really compete though, Capps needs to be replaced.

Jumbo1280_8u0b9irp_movx213fAssuming he’s available, the Cincinnati Reds’ Jumbo Diaz is a good candidate. Diaz and his 4.18 ERA isn’t as impressive as his 3.20 xFIP, but regression in his 16.4% HR/FB could effectively close his ERA-xFIP gap. Diaz pairs a mid-to-high 90s fastball with a slider that gets a lot of whiffs, along with a passable 2-seamer, combining for a 10.44 K/9 and just a 2.69 BB/9. There is evidence that he is truly prone to giving up home runs, but Marlins Park could mitigate that during home games. And for what it’s worth, Diaz is projected to amass 0.9 fWAR in 2016.

The Reds are certainly not planning to contend in 2016, so trading away a 32-year old reliever would be reasonable. Diaz is a big part of the bullpen in Cincinnati, given that he’s in line for some saves and is probably their best relief pitcher overall, but he shouldn’t be off-limits by any means.

montgomery1280_ld0ky4wc_kbvwomo4Upon the return of Charlie Furbush, the Seattle Mariners’ Mike Montgomery could also be in play. He’s a starter by trade, working out of the bullpen to start the year. But Montgomery is out of options, and might be out of chances when Furbush is healthy. Montgomery has pitched very well this spring, and he may be apt to serve in the long-relief/swingman role that Hand has held for the Marlins the past two seasons, allowing Hand to fill a LOOGY role, as to not let his poor splits be regularly exploited.

Catcher

2015 fWAR: 1.8

2016 projected fWAR: 1.6

With such a poor farm system, there probably isn’t a way to acquire an impact catcher like Jonathan Lucroy, and considering the fact that incumbent J.T. Realmuto is actually pretty good behind the plate (and on the base paths, surprisingly), he shouldn’t be on his way out of the starting role anytime soon. Moving along.

Middle Infield

2015 fWAR: 6.3

2016 projected fWAR: 3.6

Last season, what could have been seen as an iffy defensive duo up-the-middle despite individual athleticism ended up being one of the more exciting displays in all of baseball, assuming you were one of the few actually following the Marlins. I’m talking of course about 2B Dee Gordon and SS Adeiny Hechavarria.

gordon_Hechavarria_1280_9t2pgf1y_mjjz12cg

Hechavarria had long been lauded for impressive skills and instincts, but he finally won the favor of defensive metrics for the first time last year. Gordon also made a similar improvement, outlined here, that netted him a gold glove.

Unfortunately, these surprise performances only move the needle slightly in the right direction as far as 2016 projections are concerned. Both Hechavarria and Gordon are projected to turn in half the WAR they posted in 2015 or less, but for Gordon at least, this is an unfair assessment.

Hechavarria jumped from slightly below average to elite, and although these numbers back up what we thought we knew from just watching him play, the shift happened over just one year. The following table, from the FanGraphs article mentioned above, shows Gordon, alternatively, with a consistent defensive improvement over the past few years:

fangraphs dee

Though his most significant improvement came last year as well, Gordon appeared to get better at SS before moving to 2B, where he also appeared to become more comfortable as he learned the position.

Although Gordon produced a 101 and 113 wRC+ the past two seasons, Depth Charts projects his upcoming efforts at just a 92 wRC+. If he can maintain around a 100 wRC+ like he did in 2014, with his real defensive ability, Gordon can absolutely produce another 4 WAR season.

Hechavarria is much more questionable, but 3.6 fWAR is really underestimating this double-play combo. Still, to be competitive, the Marlins need these two middle-infielders to prove their defensive prowess is legitimate.

Corner Infield

2015 fWAR: 0.3

2016 projected fWAR: 2.4

Martin Prado and Justin Bour aren’t exactly fitting complements to Miami’s exciting middle infielders, but they generally get the job done. Prado enjoyed his best season on both sides of the ball since he left the Braves in 2012, totaling 3.1 WAR. Prado has struggled in Spring Training thus far, as the power seems like it could be fading.

fl-miami-marlins-news-0720-20150719Throughout his career, Prado has relied on making a lot of contact, so a power dip shouldn’t hinder him too much from finding a way on base, but his slugging percentage may not crack .400 again. Prado’s defense should keep his value from being null, and is probably a good bet to keep him average, but there isn’t any upside here. Finding 3+ WAR again will actually be a struggle.

1B Justin Bour, and his platoon partner, Chris Johnson, in contrast, provide no value in the field. To say they provide value at the plate is almost incorrect too. 23 home runs in 2015 has Bour batting in the middle of the lineup against RHP in 2016, but last year his poor defense and awful base running almost entirely negated his 117 wRC+. We hope that’s an anomaly and not the norm. Johnson, meanwhile, can’t take a walk (3.9% BB%) and struck out 29% of the time last year, more than ever before, en route to posting a 71 wRC+ and -0.3 fWAR. Johnson then, needs to be replaced.

GettyImages-512858132.0The Marlins should be looking at Kyle Blanks of the San Francisco Giants. He won’t be available for awhile since he is injured, and he also has a K problem, but Blanks mashes LHP, and could excel in a part-time role. Like Bour, Blanks is limited in the field and on the bases paths, but over the last three years he has put up a 150 wRC+ against LHP, (albeit in just 181 PA). Blanks’ mid-20s K% against LHP is much more manageable than his ~30% mark against RHP.

Outfield

2015 fWAR: 6.7

2016 projected fWAR: 11.3

An outfield tandem featuring studs Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich has as much upside as almost any other OF duo in the league. Throw in a productive Marcell Ozuna, and we could be looking at a top-5 outfield. When healthy, Stanton is the league’s premier slugger. The keys here will be Ozuna’s bat, Yelich’s glove, and health all around to keep backup OF Ichiro off the field (sorry about that Ichiro).

062914-FSF-MLB-NL-Miami-Marlins-Christian-Yelich-PI.vresize.1200.675.high.52Yelich’s overall defensive value was hurt by playing some more center field, a position that he did not appear to have the range for, but his range in his more-comfortable left field was curiously low in 2015 as well. After accumulating 13.1 RngR (2nd to Alex Gordon) in LF in 2014, Yelich ended with just 0.2 RngR in 2015. Though we must note Yelich’s percentage of likely plays made dipped 10%, and significantly more chances (25 to 9) boosted his ratings in 2014.

Considering Yelich missed time in April of 2015 for a lower back strain, we can assume his range was unsurprisingly limited throughout the season when he returned. Coming into 2016, if Yelich is fully healthy, we should expect his defensive performance to be much closer to his 2014 than 2015, while his bat stays pretty steady.

Ozuna, comparatively, is much more difficult to figure out. In the first half, Ozuna struggled to square up fastballs and made less contact on sliders, which translated into a lot of soft contact and ground balls. After his demotion, Ozuna seemed headed in the right direction:

GB/GB Soft% Med% Hard%
March/April 1.47 18.8% 41.7% 39.6%
May 1.89 19.8% 49.0% 31.3%
June 2.25 18.8% 46.45 34.8%
August 0.94 13.3% 48.9% 37.8%
Sept/October 1.14 14.8% 49.4% 35.8%

Ozuna came around in August and September, reversing both of these trends and giving the Marlins hope that he can start and finish 2016 strong, and so far this spring, Ozuna has done nothing but hit. While his .341/.391/.634 line with a couple homers and 4 BB to 3 K doesn’t count for anything, it’s a more promising sign than a slow start at the plate.

Conclusion

After going positional group by positional group, the outlook is frankly terrible. Even if Stanton and Fernandez are healthy all year, a lot has to break the right way for the Marlins to compete with the Mets and Nationals all season long. Miami will almost certainly would have to dip into the minor league system in some way to cover for under-performing veterans and injuries, but the fact is the Marlins just don’t have the system to afford that.

josefernandez_6cb6ulvy_wm4qsc8pThe front office, of course, knows their best chance to win comes while they still have Jose Fernandez, who is under contract through 2018. That gives the Marlins a 3-year window to beef up their roster, and in that time-frame, I think a World Series run is well within the realm of possibilities. So here are my best suggestions to fix the Marlins by the beginning of 2017:

What’s Next?

This all stems from the poor status of the farm and letting it bleed to win. Miami’s top prospect is riddled with question marks, there are few high floor players in the system, and the upside of most guys is limited, but there’s still some value there.

At the conclusion of 2016, Prado, Johnson, Ichiro, Dunn, and Jackson are all free agents. Miami also could stand to upgrade with a new third baseman, a stronger platoon partner for Bour at first, a better backup outfielder, and one or two quality free agent relievers to take a serious shot at contention in 2017. It is a pivotal year considering two factors: Wei-Yin Chen’s ability to opt-out, and Stanton’s still team-friendly salary.

032016_Wei_Yin_Chen_1280_d3su2w43_4ki83us7If the Marlins are not competitive in 2017, Chen may choose to opt out of his contract and join a good, but not great, SP free-agent class where he could stand to sign a premium salary assuming, he has been pitching well in Miami. Also, Stanton will be paid a relatively meager $14.5 million in 2017 before his pay jumps to $25 million in 2018, leaving the Marlins with more financial flexibility over the next two seasons. With these things in mind, I’ll suggest a few moves that could reasonably put the Marlins in the playoffs in 2017.

Note: Prospect ratings taken from Dan Farnsworth of Fangraphs. Ratings adhere to the following table and were presented as current grade/50th percentile projection/90% percentile projection.

fangraphs marins farm

2016 Regular Season:

Trade 3B Martin Prado to the Houston Astros for 3B JD Davis and LHP Reymin Guduan

It’s uncertain if this trade would even be feasible given Matt Duffy’s presence, and the Astros current first base situation, but Astros’ incumbent 3B Luis Valbuena could use a regular platoon partner. He knocked 25 home runs with a .214 ISO last year, but he struggled against LHP with just a 62 wRC+.

In contrast, Prado has a career 124 wRC+ against LHP, posting marks of 134, 134, 170, and 130 the past four years. The Astros powerhouse would likely welcome the defensively gifted Prado with open arms, but he would create a logjam of infielders if Tyler White plays well enough to stick at first. Not exactly simple or likely, but it could work.

jd-davis-battingDavis has his limits on defense that could force him to first base eventually, but his bat could play well at either position if things pan out, as he has hit well at each stage in his career. He hasn’t reached the high minors yet, so he likely won’t be in the fold in 2017, but Davis is a decent target to play some third base and complement Bour at first base until Josh Naylor is ready.

At 24 years old, Guduan may be losing his prospect status, but his high-90s heat and hard slider from the left side are tantalizing. He fits a mold much like current Marlin’s lefty Mike Dunn who is a free agent after 2016, but unfortunately, like Dunn in 2015, Guduan has problems with control. Some refinement can make him a decent, cheap replacement. His progression is a big “what if,” but Miami could buy his upside.

For reference, here is how FanGraphs assesses Davis and Guduan:

J.D. Davis

40/45-50/55

Best Tool: Power

50/60/65

Reymin Guduan

35/40/50

Best Tool: Fastball

55/60/70

2016-2017 Offseason:

Sign free-agent 3B Justin Turner

Justin_Turner_ecxrgbvu_a9151djoPaying for a player’s age-32 through probably age-35 seasons isn’t ideal, but over the past two seasons, Justin Turner evolved into one of the best hitting third basemen in the entire league. He plays passable defense, and although he can’t play everyday, he’s well worth the money he’ll get after posting a 157 and 141 wRC+ in consecutive years. How much he stands to earn will be dictated by this upcoming season, but the Marlins figure to come out winners with a reasonable price tag.

Trade RHP Tyler Kolek, LHP Jarlin Garcia, and OF Isaiah White to the Tampa Bay Rays for SP Jake Odorizzi

The Rays may ask for more in this deal, especially depending on how Kolek’s season goes, but I think this is a good starting place. The Rays would hope to open the 2017 season with Chris Archer, Odorizzi, Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, Matt Moore, Erasmo Ramirez, and Blake Snell healthy and competing for rotation spots (okay, a couple of them won’t actually have to compete), but this is a bevy of average or better arms, and Miami could take advantage of this typical surplus of starting pitching.

Tyler_Kolek_rlwl7bbw_xpnq915kKolek is the Marlins top prospect, but he hasn’t quite lived up to expectations as a 2nd overall pick. His fastball velocity has been up-and-down since his pro debut, and his secondary stuff is just as inconsistent. Another poor season could tank his value, so the Marlins should recoup some value when they can. Packing him to find a good, controllable, mid-rotation starter like Odorizzi is exactly what Miami needs to compete in 2017, and it might be all they can realistically get. Not inconsequential, Tampa Bay might be exactly the place Kolek needs to be to get his career on track.

Garcia is a solid LHP prospect, though he doesn’t figure to be much more than a 4 or 5 starter. He can locate his low-90s fastball and compliments it with a good changeup and curve and an okay slider, but inconsistencies in Garcia’s delivery could limit his ceiling.

Isaiah White is an exciting young talent – he just has some flaws to his game. At 19 years old, he’ll take his time to develop his raw ability, but it could take awhile. Signs, (namely a lack of discipline at the plate), point toward uneven improvements, but his great speed and athleticism play well into creating value in the field and on the base paths. If he hits well enough to eventually pair with Kevin Kiermaier, White could afford the Rays to play even Corey Dickerson in the outfield.

For reference, here is how FanGraphs assesses Kolek, Garcia, and White:

Tyler Kolek

40/50/60

Best Tool: Fastball

55/60/70

Jarlin Garcia

40/45/50

Best Tool: Fastball

55/60/60

Isaiah White

30/40/55

Best Tool: Run

70/75/80

Sign LHP Brett Cecil

I think a logical target for the Marlins over the offseason will be relief pitching, but spending heavily on a top-tier closers like Kenley Jansen or Mark Melancon seems unlikely. The club could try to retain Mike Dunn, especially if he can tone down his control problems, but the Marlins would be better off dropping a little more cash to land Brett Cecil.

CECIL2

In each of the past three seasons, Cecil has improved his ERA, xFIP, and fWAR, making him one one of the best left-handed relievers in the game. Cecil was able to cut his walk rate in half while maintaining his strikeout ability, but his lack of late-inning experience could drive his value down a bit.

Trade OF Isael Soto and RHP Nick Wittgren for RHP Jumbo Diaz

For reasons I already stated, Diaz is an unheralded quality arm. If he closes games in 2016, it’ll take more to pry him away from the Reds, but he still should be cheaper than younger, comparable arms.

wittgrenpitchSoto has great power but like many developing hitters he struggles to make consistent contact. Soto is just 19, so he has a lot of time to develop, and Cincinnati would have plenty of time to figure him into their corner outfield situation down the line. Wittgren has gotten good results pitching out of relief, but the projectability of minor league relievers is a little fuzzy. Both his fastball and curve look like at least average offerings.

For reference, here is how FanGraphs assesses Soto and Wittgren:

Isael Soto

30/40/50+

Best Tool: Power

50/60/65

Nick Wittgren

40/45/45+

Best Tool: Curveball

50/50/55

Sign free-agent 1B Kyle Blanks

Another player I mentioned earlier, Blanks would be a fine and inexpensive addition to the Miami bench. He slots right in a first base against LHP and is in a lot of senses, a right-handed Justin Bour. He can also occasionally play corner outfield to get his bat in the lineup.

Hypothetical 2017 Roster:

Note: FIP and wRC+ are current 2016 projections from Fangraphs.

Rotation FIP Bullpen FIP Lineup vs. RHP wRC+ Lineup vs. LHP
Jose Fernandez 2.67 A.J. Ramos 3.42 Dee Gordon 92 Dee Gordon
Wei-Yin Chen 3.49 Brett Cecil 2.95 Justin Turner 120 Justin Turner
Jake Odorizzi 3.82 Carter Capps 2.42* Christian Yelich 113 Christian Yelich
Tom Koehler 4.34 Jumbo Diaz 3.43 Giancarlo Stanton 152 Giancarlo Stanton
Adam Conley 4.06 David Phelps 3.77 Justin Bour 104 102 Marcell Ozuna
  Jarred Cosart 4.10 Marcell Ozuna 102 104 Kyle Blanks
Brad Hand 3.94 J.T. Realmuto 83 J.T. Realmuto
Adeiny Hechavarria 77 Adeiny Hechavarria

*ZiPS Projection

The rotation is still not stellar, but significant additions to the bullpen can mitigate some poor starts, and with Justin Turner in the 2-hole and a productive bat against LHP at first, the lineup is a lot longer. The bench does need to be fleshed out, but this roster has the look of a competitive offense-driven team with a skid-stopper in Fernandez, a collection of good relievers, and enough funds to make mid-season additions.

Statistics provided by: FanGraphs.com

Images thanks to: palmbeachpost.com, Forbes.com, NBC Sports, MLB.com, sun-sentinel.com, Getty Images, Fox Sports, mwltraveler.com. thestar.com, and jconline.com

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