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Lunatic Fringe: The Miami Marlins as NL East champions

You think that’s crazy? Well it is, and so are you and so is everything else.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

There is mounting evidence that there is a glitch in the matrix, and many of the breakdowns in our world’s normal simulation center around sports. The Falcons blew a 28-3 second-half lead against the Patriots in the Super Bowl, which should not distract you from the fact that the Indians blew a 3-1 lead in the World Series, which should not distract you from the fact that the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. The election, which we all have basically decided to treat like sports, went … well, it went a certain way, despite all predictions and polls, and now the presidency is America’s most-watched reality television program.

So, let’s get weird. Anyone can tell you why Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston or Washington can win the World Series. Snoooo-zers, no one wants to hear about that. The world has gone mad, and I’m tired of fighting the onslaught of pandemonium. Here at the Lunatic Fringe, I’ll be exploring how to get a few teams on the outside of the contention bubble into the playoffs — and once you get in the tournament, anything can happen.

Let’s start with the bad news, and the obvious. The starting pitching isn't very good, and it's really not Miami's fault. Just three years ago, the Marlins starting rotation boasted one of the most exciting one-two punches in the league in Jose Fernandez and Henderson Alvarez. Not only did they have electric stuff, they were wildly popular in the heavily Cuban and Latin market of Miami (Fernandez hailed from Cuba, and Alvarez is Venezuelan). At 21 and 23, respectively, Fernandez and Alvatez appeared to be ready to headline the Marlins marquee for the next decade.

Alas, fate intervened in the cruelest way. Fernandez, of course, tragically perished along with three of his friends last fall in a boating accident. The news rocked the baseball world in a way not seen since Roberto Clemente's untimely death in 1972, and robbed fans of a generational talent.

Alvarez is also gone, having been released by the Marlins in December of 2015. He has pitched just 22.1 innings since his All Star 2014 campaign, and is currently unemployed as he seeks to return from a succession of shoulder surgeries that have derailed his career.

Whom one expects to be Miami’s best pitcher in 2017 speaks volumes about their personality. If you’re a Results Over Process type of fella, then Dan Straily — acquired from Cincinnati for a trio of prospects in January — is your guy. He notched the best season of his career last year, even if more predictive statistics didn’t see much difference between his 2016 campaign and the two years previous when he recorded an ERA on the wrong side of 6.00. You like charts? Here’s two charts!

Straily Sad Graphs

They aren’t very good charts, I’m afraid, unless you have a vested interest in Dan Straily doing poorly. Maybe he kicked your dog. Maybe he told everyone that your dog is really a replacement and an imposter. I don’t know your life. He seems like a nice guy to me, I don’t know. Whatever.

The charts tells us that hitters against Dan Straily got hits much less often on balls in play, even though they hit the ball harder. If that seems backward to you, it is. Happily, this is the Lunatic Fringe, so we don’t care. Dan Straily owns now. He’s our ace.

The choice between Wei-Yin Chen and Adam Conley depends on whether you value the experience and wisdom afforded the elderly or the youthful exuberance of the young. If you believe in literal and actual miracles (we do!!), then perhaps you believe in another Edinson Volquez renaissance, and if you like nerdy-lookin’ white dudes who walk to the mound to some goddamn DMX, you might take a flier on Tom Koehler.

Finding a 3-4-5 combination that works with the likes of Straily, Volquez, Chen, Conley and Koehler would have been easy. Constructing an entire rotation out of them? That’s something else entirely, and the Marlins will need at least two of these guys to outperform their projections if they want to compete for a Wild Card spot. They’ll also need to stay healthy, since there isn’t a lot of depth to be found. Most of Miami’s top prospects are ticketed for A-ball this season and are several seasons away from MLB competition. Jake Esch and Jarlin Garcia are the best of the bunch at the upper levels, but the latter hasn’t pitched above Double-A and the former was less than stellar in a cup of coffee last season. Newly acquired Odrisamer Despaigne is a fun name to say, especially when you’re a major league hitter and you see it on your opponent’s lineup card.

No matter where you find the success in the Miami rotation, there’s no question that the staff isn’t on the same level as the other teams in the National League East. It is, in fact, probably the worst: The up-and-coming Phillies and the definitely-the-opposite-of-that Braves rotations are probably better than Miami’s, and the Mets and Nationals are operating on an entirely different frequency.

So that’s the bad news. Now, let’s chuck it all in the refuse bin, yell louder than people with evidence, and get Miami to the playoffs. Elsewhere on the pitching staff, the Marlins boast a strong bullpen, if not a fully loaded one in the way of the Indians, Dodgers or Cubs. Kyle Barraclough and A.J. Ramos form what might be the most underrated bullpen tandem in the league; Barraclough walks too many batters but his ability to keep the ball on the ground helps negate the extra baserunners, and he struck out more batters per inning that Aroldis Chapman. Former Future Yankee Great David Phelps has found his calling as a full-time reliever. If Phelps remains in the bullpen all year, it means the starting pitching held up and remained healthy, and Miami will be much more successful for it: Phelps’ ERA drops by nearly a run and his strikeout rate goes up nine points when he appears in relief.

The blueprint for the pitchers is simple: The starting pitching is mediocre, not bad, and routinely gets through the fifth or sixth inning having allowed a reasonable number of runs. Phelps and his cohorts are able to bridge the gap to the back of the bullpen, where Barraclough and Ramos slam the door shut. Easy peasy.

Let’s be very honest here though; if you’re riding the Marlins train to the 2017 MLB Playoffs, then it is because you believe in the power of dingers. You believe that Giancarlo Stanton’s rough 2016 season was a blip on the radar, and that he’ll be back to mashing taters this season like he’s got a day job managing a KFC. You believe he, along with Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, form the best young outfield in baseball, and that it will have two down-ballot MVP candidates in it.

You also need to believe that the sudden emergence of J.T. Realmuto as a top-five catcher is legitimate. While most of the peripheral numbers belie that, we’re going to use some US government-issue Alternative Facts and buy that he’s a .300/.340/.430 guy now. You’re buying that Ichiro has one more useful season in him as the Marlins fourth outfielder, that Dee Gordon’s production won’t fall off a cliff now that he’s not chemically altered, and that more than a few members of the Marlins’ young starting lineup (only Martin Prado is older than 29) are in line for big years.

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projects the Marlins to finish with 78 wins, so we need to find them an extra nine wins to get them to October. Easy!!! Straily is our ace now, but BP doesn’t know about that, and they’ve hit him with the regression stick. He’s going from a 1.1 WARP up to 3.1, giving us two extra wins. Likewise, we’re taking back the two wins the computers stripped Realmuto of in anticipation of a regression to the mean (+4). They’re scared of Barraclough’s walk rate, and we are not, so let’s tack his two wins back on there (+6). BP thinks Jeff Francouer will be worth -1.3 wins next year, and we agree, so we’re not going to let him play, earning ourselves another win back (+7). Last but not least, the PECOTA projections dropped 2.5 wins each off of Ozuna and Prado, and we feel they can retain two of those wins between them (+9).

And there you have it: The Miami Marlins, your 2017 NL East Champions. It’s absolutely insane, and unquestionably impossible. Perfect for 2017. We're staying in Wonderland, and man, this rabbit hole is deep.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Kyle Barraclough’s name. We’d rather focus on the fact that it’s actually pronounced “bear-claw.”

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Travis Sarandos is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score, a Taylor Swift enthusiast and a very nice person. You can follow him on Twitter at @travis_mke.