Miami Marlins wise to save pitching prospects

Justin Nicolino could have been used for trade bait this offseason, but the Marlins chose otherwise. - USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Marlins eventually tried to solve their gaping lineup holes via free agency rather than trading away their pitching prospect depth. Was that the best idea for the franchise?

The Miami Marlins have mostly filled their 2014 roster, with only a stray bullpen piece as the remaining hole to fill. Given the number of holes on the roster, it was an impressive feat to have done all of this just via free agency. The Fish signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Rafael Furcal, Casey McGehee, and Garrett Jones to fill in four positions, only one of which had a true satisfactory incumbent in Logan Morrison. The catcher, second base, and third base spots were considered absent heading into the offseason, and the Fish will have filled them a few weeks before the new year.

The alternative the Marlins could have pursued is to try and use their significant pitching depth, both in the majors and from their prospects, to acquire some longer-term solutions at those positions. Miami has a long-term plan at third base with top prospect Colin Moran, but the other three positions they addressed this season remain unresolved for the long haul. The Fish have no significant prospects at the catcher and first base positions and have a questionable talent in Derek Dietrich at second base. The team could have tried to acquire someone to fill those shoes for the years to come using their pitching talent, and there were a few names in players like Mark Trumbho and Will Middlebrooks potentially available.

Did the Marlins have the right idea to go for cheaper options in the short-term and save the pitchers for the season?

TINSTAAPP

Remember the old phrase "there's no such thing as a pitching prospect?" The Marlins are probably a good deal aware of this phrase given their long history of drafting pitching depth over almost anything else as their primary strategy. The Fish are aware that resting on your laurels knowing that you have pitching prospects on the pipeline does not guarantee that they will become successful.

The prime example of this involving the Marlins is their oft-maligned 2005 draft. That draft yielded five pitching selections in the first round and supplementary draft pick rounds, many of whom ended up on top Marlins prospects lists for some time afterwards. The highlight of that class was top pick Chris Volstad, who was ranked as high as 40th in Baseball America's Top 100 prospects list before the 2007 season. Volstad turned into a pumpkin almost immediately after a nice 2008 debut that was inflated by abnormally low home run numbers. In each of the three following seasons with the Marlins, Volstad never allowed fewer than 17 home runs or posted an ERA lower than 4.58.

The rest of that 2005 draft class faltered as well. Sean West was ranked 96th by Baseball America as late as 2009 but never recovered to full form from Tommy John surgery. Ryan Tucker failed every time he hit the majors. Jacob Marceaux never even reached that mark. Aaron Thompson did so for four games with the Washington Nationals after he was traded for half a season of Nick Johnson.

The Marlins had three top-100 pitching prospects heading into the 2006 season. They added another name heading into 2007 while graduating two of the previous players. By 2012, only one of those players was a regular Major Leaguer, as only Josh Johnson had made it. The Marlins are only boasting two top-100 pitching talents heading into next year in Andrew Heaney and Justin Nicolino, along with four other pitchers in the team's top 10. Even at those numbers, the Fish may have to observe the development of all them just to garner a rotation out of those players.

There is a case for trading them using this same argument, however. The Marlins are promoting three of those players to Double-A full-time after spending parts of their season there last year. This represents a major jump for them, and any of those players who falter will likely lose value as the season progresses. For some prospects, they may never have higher value than this, and the Fish may not be able to capitalize on that value if they risk a poor season from a Nicolino or Anthony DeSclafani. In a year or two, it is possible a number of these players will have no trade value, much like Thompson did by the time he was dealt in 2009.

The Competitive Window

The other argument favoring this move for Miami is that the Fish have not yet hit their competitive window. There is a significant amount of turmoil surrounding the roster still, in particular with the status of Giancarlo Stanton after the 2014 season. Assuming the roster remains relatively similar for the next few years, the team could see the start of their competitive window in 2015, with 2016 being more likely.

Either way, the window is not opening this upcoming season. In 2014, Miami is still expected to struggle, and the front office internally has know this as well. The significant pitching depth Miami has may be the only tool they have left to use to upgrade the roster, as free agent prices are continuing to skyrocket and the franchise may run into typical fiscal limits. If this pitching depth is the team's ace in the hole, why whip it out early to benefit a lost season? The Marlins might be struggling to win 70 or so games this year, so the team is not close to contention. Once the development of young potential stars like Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna shows, the team should have a better idea of when that competitive window will open.

That will the opportunity, in 2015 or 2016, for the Marlins to strike. By that time, all of the young pitchers who would have earned a Major League chance will be ready, while many of the current starters like Hendeson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi will have proven themselves worthy or not and would be close to or earning arbitration. The Fish can then trade either from their experience or from the prospects' remaining value to conjure up a second baseman or catcher of the future.

The markets for those areas were weak on long-term solutions this offseason. Our plan involved paying Henderson Alvarez and another pitching prospect as part of a move for Hank Conger along with short-term solution Howie Kendrick. Conger was the prize as a long-term piece at catcher, but this trade would not have solved second base for very long. The Marlins went the other way, signing Saltalamacchia and taking similar (if older) value for fewer years but keeping the team's flexibility with its prospects. Elsewhere, the franchise would have had a hard time finding teams interested in trading young, talented, cost-controlled players for anything, including pitching prospects.

The Marlins ultimately made the right move not to sacrifice the future for a bleak 2014 present. But it is important to continue to keep an eye on these prospects, because any of the pitchers Miami has save Jose Fernandez and perhaps Heaney could become trade bait as early as next year in the quest to fill out this roster's long-term problems. The Marlins were right to not pull the trigger now, but they need to pull the trigger at some point.

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