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Handling the Marlins infield logjam

MLB: Miami Marlins at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Marlins entered 2016 with a clear alignment for their infield. Reigning batting champion Dee Gordon and Gold-Glove candidate Adeiny Hechavarria were as solid as it gets up the middle. Veteran defensive anchor Martin Prado was back at third, looking for a repeat performance of his 3-fWAR 2015 season. Upstart righty-mashing Justin Bour would man first and provide top level power at a fraction of the cost. Behind the plate, 2nd year catcher J.T. Realmuto was to build off of a very solid rookie campaign.

Early Season Growth

Things didn’t begin as well as the team would’ve liked. After a 6-11 start, Gordon, Hechavarria, and Realmuto had put up miserable wRC+ totals of 71, 40, and 10(!). Then came the suspension. On April 28th, Gordon was slapped with an 80 game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Gordon would not appeal and immediately began serving his sentence. At that point, the Marlins infield seemed as though it was in serious trouble. Thanks to a BABIP-fueled .397 average from Prado and Bour putting up a near .800 OPS in April, the group was able to scrap together some support for Jose Fernandez and company in the rotation. The most improbable hero came in the form of Derek Dietrich, who filled in immediately for Gordon on a road trip during which the Marlins won a possibly season-saving seven straight games en route to a 13-11 April record.

In Gordon’s absence, Dietrich has emerged as an admirable replacement. From May 1st through July 1st, Dietrich posted a .307/.399/.426 slash line with a 126 wRC+. Dietrich traded power for more hits, and the Marlins benefited from his evolution. Along with a drop in strikeout rate, Dietrich has gone on to be hit by the second-most pitches in the majors behind Brandon Guyer. After a rough July, Dietrich came back down to a .274/.363/.400 slash line with a 108 wRC+ for the season. Even with a rough month, Dietrich has been an above-average offensive contributor who held his own defensively. A former shortstop in the minors, it’s not hard to see Dietrich sliding over to third base more permanently now that Gordon has returned. However, third base is currently blocked by Prado.

Prado is in the midst of a terrific season even though his power is mostly gone. Despite having only 5 homers on the year, Prado has still amassed a 116 wRC+ and has increased his slugging percentage 36 points from last season so far. Prado ranks 12th among major league third basemen with a 2.5 fWAR and has continued to provide steady production while being an important clubhouse leader. He is also a free agent at season’s end.

Aside from Giancarlo Stanton, Gordon may be the most important player for the Marlins’ success this year and in the future. Gordon has had a rough 2016, to say the least. Following up his batting title, he underwhelmed in the first two weeks of the season with a .266/.289/.330 slash line and measly 66 wRC+. Oh, and then he was suspended 80 games for using performance-enhancing drugs in late April. On top of magnifying an issue of increasing concern in MLB, Gordon wasn’t even performing. Maybe there was a mental part of his short struggle with his knowing that a suspension was looming, which is tough to imagine him having to play through. Although he obviously made a mistake, Gordon’s comments since his suspension have been solid. While he feigned ignorance to which substance he took, he seems contrite and apologetic. He didn’t toss blame onto anyone besides himself, so it’s probably best for he and the Marlins to move on for his future and the team’s. In all likelihood, no team is taking on the almost $50 million he’s owed over the next 4 years, so he can be penciled into second base for the foreseeable future.

Offseason Decisions

To understand the future of the team, one must first understand the past. The Marlins are famously tight with money. The team consistently ranks in the bottom fifth in player payroll, and many of their past transactions include other teams kicking in money to finalize trades. In fact, the Yankees are still paying $3 million of Prado’s $11 million salary this season. During the winter meetings after the 2014 season, the Marlins included extra prospects like Enrique Hernandez and catcher Austin Barnes in a trade with the Dodgers in return for the complete payment of both Dan Haren and Gordon’s 2015 contracts. The total amount of cash headed Miami’s way in that deal was a whopping $12.5 million, which would have accounted for roughly 20% of the Marlins payroll last season.

Given that history, it seems almost a done deal that Miami would not be interested in retaining Prado for market value. Prado will be looking at 2-3 year deals in the $12-14 million per year range when he becomes a free agent after this season. But with the free agent pitching market as thin as it is and the starting pitching trade market as expensive as it is, the Marlins could be looking at creative ways of addressing their rotation needs.

Dietrich could be dangled as an attractive trade chip this offseason, with his positional flexibility being especially attractive to teams. He has the arm strength to play third, but has also been a solid contributor at second. As a player who just turned 27 and will be arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason, Dietrich has both upside and team control working in his favor in terms of trade value. While he hasn’t shown a tremendous amount of power this season, he’s at least shown good pop in the past. Of all second basemen with at least 250 plate appearances in 2015, Dietrich would’ve held the sixth-highest ISO at .200. His ISO was just 10 points shy of the top second baseman, Robinson Cano.

Can $12-$14 million acquire a mid-rotation starter for the Marlins, who were reportedly “desperate” to trade for a starter at this season’s deadline? In years past, $12-$14 million probably could’ve done it. This offseason, the best starters on the market include injury-prone Rich Hill, an erratic Edinson Volquez, and the enigmatic Andrew Cashner, whose ERA has hovered close to 5 for most of the season. Can a trade package around Dietrich begin a conversation with teams such as the Rays, Royals, or Diamondbacks for pitchers such as Matt Andriese, Patrick Corbin, or other buy-low candidates like Shelby Miller or Yordano Ventura? I think those teams at least pick up the phone.

Earlier this season, reports surfaced about the Marlins shopping Hechavarria for pitching. Could the tandem of Dietrich and Hechavarria be packaged together now that Miguel Rojas is waiting in the wings to play shortstop? What if pitching prospect Luis Castillo, who’s posted a 2.25 ERA in high-A this season, is included? It’s nowhere near enough to pry away a Jose Quintana, but does it pique the Rays interest for Jake Odorizzi? Whatever route the Marlins choose to take in the trade market, it may be more advantageous than holding their breath that someone available on the free agent market will actually be useful. The last thing they can afford to do is be stagnant, because not much is coming up anytime soon from their farm system. Without a little bit more help on their major league roster, the Marlins might end up a few wins short of a playoff birth this season and possibly next. That is a form of purgatory no team wants to be in.