Enigmatic baseball teams are fun. They leave us few answers and many questions, which gives us plenty to think about. For those that like to think deeply about baseball, these are the teams that keep you up at night. What are they in reality? What should they do? What will they do? While the list of questions goes on, the list of answers is foggy at best. And in case you're currently in the market for an enigma, look no further than the Miami Marlins.
If you haven't been keeping up with The Fish, they've actually played respectable baseball so far in 2014. In a division that's bottlenecked at the moment, the Marlins find themselves in the thick of the race, which no one would have expected after 62 games. No team has taken charge of the NL East and the Marlins have been opportunistic, mixing it up and remaining relevant far longer than we ever would have ever guessed. For what it's worth, here are the division standings through Sunday, June 8th with the run differential of each team added for context.
|2014 NL East Standings through Sunday, June 8th|
|Wins||Losses||Win %||Run Differntial|
|New York Mets||28||35||0.444||-5|
But here's the thing: despite a fantastic start that's exceeded every expectation, the Marlins are still projected to sink like a stone before it's all said and done. Losing Jose Fernandez certainly didn't help the team's cause, but even post-injury, they've remained competitive at 13-14 since their young ace went down. Add that to a hot start and, as the standings show, the Marlins remain in striking distance of the division. At least for now.
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The projections for Miami remain bleak, thanks in large part to an underwhelming pitching staff. Losing their ace was a tough blow, but the bullpen (3.85 FIP, 0.4 WAR) has been worse than the rotation (3.59 FIP, 4.9 WAR). In a strange and disagreeable attempt to improve the situation, Miami traded the #39th pick in the 2014 draft to the Pirates in exchange for the average-or-worse right-hander Bryan Morris. Not long after, they signed right-handed former closer Kevin Gregg who was floating around in veteran-reliever-free-agent-purgatory. These moves are hardly expected to right the ship for the Miami ‘pen, but the team is making attempts to remain competitive, frugal and shortsighted as they may be.
Even after the moves, the FanGraphs projected standings place The Fish third in the division, much further behind the leaders than they currently are. There are two likely reasons for this: A) they no longer have the services of perhaps the best pitcher in the game, and/or B) they've played over their heads in 2014, at least as far as ZiPS and Steamer projections are concerned. Rather than break this down further, it's best to refer you to Jeff Sullivan's handiwork on the situation, which highlights the massive discrepancy between what the team has done so far and what they're expected to do going forward.
But getting back to the premise of enigmas, let's address a few questions about the team. Specifically, let's discuss the questions that were posed in the open and see just where we come out.
What are the Marlins in reality?
In reality, this current Marlins team is not as good as their record would indicate. Despite a monstrous campaign from Giancarlo Stanton, they're a little light at the plate elsewhere. Of far greater concern is their pitching, which ranks collectively in the middle of the MLB pack. Unfortunately, over 25% of the production belongs to Fernandez who will not throw another pitch this season. Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez are holding their own, but they are not the type of one-two punch that's going to carry the team all season long given that there's little to no talent behind them. The aforementioned bullpen is pretty terrible outside of Steven Cishek. In sum, they're good enough to win games, but not good enough to post the kind of winning percentage that will likely be needed to reach the postseason as currently constructed. They have a shot at 81 wins as they stand now, but appear to be 8 or 9 wins shy of true contention. Of course, this is all predicated on everyone remaining healthy and producing as they are now, which is quite a dangerous assumption.
What should the Marlins do?
The Marlins are facing something they haven't dealt with in quite some time: a decision about whether to go for it or back off and continue to build for the future. Here are two paths they can follow.
Door number one - go for it
If the Marlins think they can reasonably make up the eight or nine wins they need to add to the roster to become contenders, the first and most immediate move that can be made would be to call up top prospect Andrew Heaney from AAA New Orleans, where he's been dominant in four starts after making eight similar starts in AA. Heaney would be an immediate upgrade over every arm in the rotation from a pure stuff standpoint outside of Eovaldi. He could bump Tom Koehler from the rotation who's been exactly replacement level over 73 innings this year. If Heaney were to have reasonable success, there's no reason to think he couldn't be worth two wins more than Koehler over the rest of the season.
That likely wouldn't be enough to save the rotation from mediocrity, however. The Marlins would be well-served to look for another arm on the trade market, presumably a solid mid-rotation pitcher. Guys like Erik Bedard, Tyson Ross or Brandon McCarthy could fit the bill without stretching the budget too much or costing an exorbitant amount in prospects returned. Inserting one of these pitchers into the rotation sooner than later could net the team another one and half wins over the course of the season by bumping veteran fill-in Randy Wolf out of the way.
The bullpen still needs help and cannot be neglected if the Marlins do indeed intend to make a serious run at the division. While the current 'pen generates the 6th most strikeouts in the majors, they also happen to generate the 4th most walks. Cishek, Mike Dunn, A.J. Ramos and Carter Capps are the only relievers projected to be above replacement level and there shouldn't be much faith put in the the newly added Morris and Gregg to provide upside. This team could use some added stability and while the number of candidates is far too deep to run down individually, they realistically need to add another win via the bullpen.
The middle infield has been a trouble spot for Miami all season. At second base, they have some palatable options in Ed Lucas and Derek Dietrich, the latter of whom was sent down just last week for defensive reasons despite a 118 wRC+ on the season. It would be easier to upgrade at short where Adeiny Hechevarria is a real problem. There's nothing wrong with a glove-first shortstop, but his 68 wRC+ is too much to absorb and given his track record, there's no reason to think it's about to get any better. The Diamondbacks have shortstops for sale and it's conceivable that by acquiring someone like Didi Gregorius, they could net themselves another win and a half, maybe two over the incumbent Hechevarria.
If you're counting, that's roughly six wins added and puts them close to where they need to be to contend with Atlanta and Washington. It's tough to add a high number of wins during the season, but with some strategic moves, the Marlins can give themselves a fighting chance.
Door number two - build for the future
If the Marlins are gun-shy and don't want to push their chips in, they can continue build for the future by trading from depth. Unfortunately, the only area where they really have depth is in the outfield, and yes, that means discussing a possible trade of Giancarlo Stanton. There's no telling what the organization could reap from flipping the best player in the National League not named Troy Tulowitzki. They could presumably command at least two top prospects and a host of other useful pieces for the slugger. A third baseman, a shortstop and a starter or two would be at the top of their shopping list and one would expect that they'd target players who are close to the majors. If they want to play it safer, they could always look to deal Marcell Ozuna and fill his void with Jake Marisnick. This would definitely net them less of a return, probably only a B-level prospect.
Outside of the outfield, they have no real positions of strength to deal from. They could, however, decide to ship away offseason acquisition Jared Saltalamcchia, but again, that won't net them anything huge. He could be part of a larger sell-the-veterans strategy along with Casey McGehee and Garrett Jones. None of these vets will command another organization's top prospects, but they could add depth to a system that's currently lacking it without having to sacrifice Stanton.
The Marlins should choose to build for the future, but avoid the nuclear option of dealing Stanton. If they can somehow deal their veterans and add a useful piece or two, while allowing their young players more time to mature, they can add a missing piece without setting themselves back. It's not inconceivable to see a future rotation containing Fernandez, Heaney, Eovaldi, Alvarez and Jacob Turner as early as 2015. They can score runs as it stands, and if they can find a way to plug their black hole at shortstop with even a passable option, they'll be better off than currently oriented where they essentially have pitchers hitting back-to-back each and every night. It's tough enough to give up one out in the National League every time around, let alone two.
This also doesn't preclude them for making a move or two this winter. They can look to add through free agency or further trades, which might make more sense considering the team's struggles with free agent signings over the last few years. The rotation and outfield are pretty much set for the future, they just need to add infield and bullpen depth to the equation. They still have one too many outfielders going forward and can deal either Ozuna or Marisnick if they so desire to make other ends meet.
What will the Marlins do?
Miami will probably do nothing. Okay, I shouldn't say "nothing" as they'll probably make some kind of move before the trade deadline. What I do mean is that they'll likely do nothing of impact, either for the immediate or future. They could very well stand pat, roll the dice on a bullpen guy or two (like they already have) and hope that the team turns up the heat on the competition. Unfortunately, this will end up with the Marlins them being pulled away from by the Braves and Nationals as the current Miami roster just doesn't have the talent to compete over the course of the season. Given the toxic history of Miami's front office, it wouldn't be surprising at all to see the team choose neither path out of either ignorance or stubbornness.
The Marlins are finally in a position to be taken seriously. Yes, they lost their ace for this year and likely part of next season, but if they work diligently to see a winning vision through, they can make waves in the coming years. Will they do that, however? That remains to be seen, and I doubt anyone is holding their breath.
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Jeff Wiser is an editor and featured writer at Beyond the Box Score and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, an analytical look at the Arizona Diamondbacks. You can follow him on Twitter @OutfieldGrass24.