Legends On Deck

It’s Hard To See How The Marlins Can Improve

Don’t be surprised if you experience déjà vu watching the 2017 Miami Marlins play on Opening Day.

Giancarlo Stanton in RF, Christian Yelich in CF, Marcell Ozuna in left. Around the infield, Justin Bour mans first base, Dee Gordon second, Adeiny Hechavarria is at short, Martin Prado at third, and J.T. Realmuto catching. That is, to a man, the exact same group of position players that the Marlins trotted out for the 2016 season opener, only with Ozuna and Yelich swapping positions. This year’s “ace”, Wei-Yin Chen, will even get the Opening Day nod just as he did last year, when Jose Fernandez was recovering from Tommy John surgery.

That 2016 team finished 79-82, good for third place in the NL East. You might recall that they were sort of “in it” until the last ten or so days of the season, but ultimately this team was simply not good enough to play in the postseason. And since then, well, not much has changed.

Fernandez passed, obviously a huge blow to the organization both on and off the field.

Beyond that, ho-hum pitcher Andrew Cashner is gone, and ho-hum pitchers Edinson Volquez and Dan Straily were acquired to fill out the rotation. The bullpen projects to be essentially the same or worse, with a group that rang up 3.7 WAR last year being replaced with one that is projected for 3.2, according to Fangraphs. One of the ways low-spending teams like the Marlins can “steal” some value from the market is by crafting an elite bullpen out of reasonably priced relievers. The Marlins haven’t done that, they’ve added no other star pieces, and, for reasons I’ll detail, it’s hard to see them wringing more value out of the margins their roster than they already have.

The thing about the Marlins the last couple years is that they tantalize you with that outfield. Stanton, Yelich, and Ozuna form what is unquestionably a top-5 MLB outfield when healthy, even without Ozuna having yet taken the next step that many expect of him. The expected continued development of Ozuna and already-star Yelich – plus the annual dream of a full, healthy season from Stanton – are what the Marlins have sold as why their franchise has had hopes of contending for the last two seasons. But for this Marlins team to contend, a lot of improbable things have to go right. And the thing is, they already kinda did, just last year.

Yelich became a legitimate star. Martin Prado had his best season in five years. J.T. Realmuto ran a .357 BABIP, an absurdly high number for a catcher, to turn in an above-average season. Kyle Barraclough developed into one of the top set-up relievers in the game and also has perhaps the best name on Earth. Derek Dietrich provided two and a half wins of value in only 128 at-bats. Amazingly Ichiro, at 42 years old, was valuable both off the bench and filling in for Stanton in RF in what was supposed to basically just be his 3,000-hit campaign season. The fact that the Marlins are counting this year on a 43-year-old being a valuable fourth outfielder for this team to compete says a lot about where they are.

And, again: all of that, last year, all of that had to come together for basically this same team to finish below .500. They need all this again, plus full superstar seasons from Stanton and Yelich and consistent quality from a suspect rotation just to maybe sniff a second wild card.

Meanwhile, the rest of the NL East has seemingly only gotten better.

The Braves have the #1 farm system in the game right now, according to ESPN’s Keith Law. Their Major League team might be better than the Marlins right now, too. The Mets are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, and have the most fearsome young rotation in baseball. The Nationals are currently a super team. Even the Phillies have a much more stocked farm system, and more money than the Marlins to spend.

All of that is to say that not only is it tough to see the Miami Marlins improving their chances in the upcoming year; it’s foreseeable that they’re going to be stuck for a while, even as the franchise publicly declares that they expect to contend. It would be more realistic to view the players on this roster as trade chips sooner rather than later. Unfortunately for the Marlins, the one player on this roster that could have brought back enough talent to hasten a rebuild – Stanton – is now saddled with the biggest contract in baseball history, effectively negating all of his trade value. This team is stuck, stuck, stuck.

Owner Jeffrey Loria is selling, having stayed on just long enough to oversee the construction of a taxpayer-funded stadium that he believes contributes to his franchise being worth 1.7 billion dollars. It’s almost certain the entire front office will be replaced with the new ownership group, so it’s no wonder they’re projecting hope for the 2017 squad. It’s likely their last gasp in what was a long, oftenbizarre experience.

Even as the front office preaches denial, it’s likely most Marlins fans know the truth. It’s going to be a long rebuild in Little Havana.


Andy Francis
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