Marlins' Pitching Renaissance Short on Time

MIAMI, FL - MAY 14: Anibal Sanchez #19 of the Miami Marlins pitches during a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Marlins Park on May 14, 2012 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Sarah Glenn/Getty Images)

The Miami Marlins are 15-5 in May following last night's victory over the Colorado Rockies. While last night's game had more offense than pitching, the Fish have been dominating the month of May with pitching, with four of the team's five starters either meeting or exceeding projected expectations from before the season started. The starting staff in particular has carried this ballclub given the team's surprising struggles offensively. But with continued health and strong performances as we have seen from the start of the season, the Marlins can indeed compete for a playoff spot in 2012.

Indeed, 2012 seems to be back on the right track. But 2013 and beyond, on the other hand, is far from guaranteed. And that is concerning for 2012, since the Marlins were built to succeed in this season with less thought going into the plans past this year. While the stellar starting staff is guaranteed to stick around throughout the rest of this year, a number of contract situations are on their way soon that could derail this team's rotation before the offense's window for contention closes.

Contract Situations and Options

As mentioned, with the team attempting to compete in 2012, there is no chance any of the Marlins' starting pitchers are traded in midseason. But take a look at their contract situations at the moment.

Player Years Remaining $MIL Remaining
Josh Johnson 1 13.75
Mark Buehrle 3 48
Ricky Nolasco 1 11.5
Carlos Zambrano 0 --
Anibal Sanchez 0 --

Immediately, you can see why the Marlins may encounter some issues beginning this offseason. Only one of the team's five current starters is signed on for longer than 2013, and that is concerning for a team that has primarily leaned on its starting staff thus far. In particular, both Anibal Sanchez (1.4 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, or fWAR, this season) and Carlos Zambrano (0.9 fWAR) are scheduled to be free agents this year. Josh Johnson, the starter the team depended on to the staff ace, is entering his final contract season, as is Ricky Nolasco. Only Mark Buehrle is scheduled to remain, and of course he happens to be the oldest of the bunch and likely the closest to a steep decline.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the two players entering free agency are also surging at the perfect time. Sanchez is having a career-best season thus far this year, and with the Marlins unable to procure a potential multi-year offer to him before the season, there is a very good chance Sanchez may price himself out of the team's range. Remember that, before the season began, I considered a long-term extension for Sanchez.

MLB Trade Rumors projected Sanchez to make $6 million in arbitration, so that value is already in the books for the first year of an extension. Assuming he receives five free agent seasons, an average between $17 million and $14.4 million is $15.65 million annually, which would make the five seasons worth about $78 million.

Prior to this season, Sanchez was expected to make a five-year deal worth $78 million in the free agent market. But that is taking into account a 2009 season that was decent but not unspectacular and contained a healthy amount of injury concern. If Sanchez successfully finishes this season with more than 30 starts, he is likely to hit 190 innings for a third straight season, meaning that, in terms of free agency, his shoulder problems should be far behind him. He would also be coming off at least one of his most successful seasons and perhaps his best year yet, making him even more valuable. This is especially true when you consider that, as of now, he would rank only behind Zack Greinke and Cole Hamels as the best free agent starter.

Zambrano has been a revelation for the Marlins, but while that is good news for 2012, it is not for the Marliins' potential chances of bringing him back. If the 30 year-old Zambrano can continue to pitch well, he may command a multi-year contract in the same vein as veteran starters such as Ted Lilly and Randy Wolf once received. Would the Marlins be willing to commit to three years of Zambrano with only one season of successful play?

What are the team's options with these two? As per the new collective bargaining agreement, the Marlins have five days after the World Series to place "qualifying offers" on their free agents. These offers are one-year contracts worth around $12 to 13 million in 2013 (it is representative of the average salary of the top 120 earning players in baseball). If the Marlins were unable or unwilling to sign Sanchez long-term, the team would still assuredly offer the qualifying tender, as Sanchez is certain to reject that (players get seven days to reject the offer) in lieu of searching for a multi-year deal. In the case of Zambrano, it is far more confusing, as he would be a potential offer and a potential dealmaker for a one-year contract at that salary. Would the team want him for one year at $12 million, and would Zambrano bank on that over the chances of him earning that multi-year deal? It is far more likely that Zambrano accepts the offer and sticks the Marlins with him for another season at a more inflated contract than his current $2.5 million paid by the Fish.

In-House or Other Plays

Based on the above situations, there is at least a decent chance the Marlins can return to 2013 with one of their two free agent starters returning for a limited time. The Fish would then have three rotation members on one-year deals in 2013 and one free spot open. At this stage, none of the Marlins' premier pitching prospects, particularly righty Jose Fernandez and lefty Chad James, are major league ready. Fernandez has been spectacular in A-ball and is due to for at least a look at Double-A by season's end, but he is just 20 years old and not likely to be filling any holes this early. Chad James is quickly losing all of his luster from being a 2009 first-round pick, as he had a decent but unspectacular year in High-A in 2011 and is repeating the level to poor results early in the season.

In Triple-A, the Marlins have one arm that could potentially fill a fifth starter slot, as Alex Sanabia has looked good thus far this season (2.78 ERA, 3.64 FIP) and has shown promise in the past. He is not a sure-fire bet to be good, but the Fish could bank on him providing innings of above-replacement pitching at least. PECOTA projects a 4.58 ERA and replacement level play in 2012, for example.

As far as outside options, obviously it would depend on the Marlins' financial flexibility. The team has $84 million committed to players next year, and their arbitration figures do not expect to eat too much into their money, as only three players (Emilio Bonifacio, Gaby Sanchez, and one of the two relievers) could expect decent raises from this season. If the team wanted to expand and sign a big free agent, Greinke and Hamels could be available among the top aces in free agency. But much like the issue with Sanchez and Johnson after 2013, the team would be forced to commit millions of dollars over many years to a pitcher almost in his 30's (both will be 29 in 2013). The middle-end options in free agency are clearly lacking, as Edwin Jackson's name is the only one that stands out.

You can fully expect the Marlins to lose Sanchez unless they plan on spending closer to $17 million a season for his services, and that is simply something to which I cannot imagine the Fish committing. However, the Marlins should get a draft pick out of that loss. As for Zambrano, there is a good chance a one-year qualifying offer would be enough for Zambrano in 2013, so do not be surprised if he returns.

Beyond 2013

After 2013, the Fish have some definite question marks. Josh Johnson's contract will be up, and the Marlins will have a serious talk about whether or not to have him return. By the time Johnson hits the free agent market, he will be 30 years old and likely still demanding the large, long-term contract that he has yet to receive. The Marlins have two seasons to determine if he is worth the investment at that age. Ricky Nolasco, on the other hand, is sure to be leaving the club unless he rights his currently sinking ship or he takes a lot less money to be a back-end starter at this point. Either way, the days of expecting him to anchor a part of the rotation are likely finished, so the decision the Marlins make on his future is less important.

Nevertheless, that is two more starters the Marlins will have to think about replacing in the future. By then, perhaps Fernandez, James, or Adam Conley may be ready to step into a major league role, but the Marlins may still have to find another replacement piece from a trade or signing to hold them off for the next few seasons.

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