Miami Marlins in interesting situation with 2014 contention

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Marlins are in almost a dead heat for first place in the NL East in June, and that brings up questions about what the Fish should do this season.

Fish Stripes readers know that this website's expectations for the Miami Marlins were not very high to start the year. The team was filling out its roster with less-than-stellar infield contributors and expecting the starting pitching staff to carry the load alongside Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich.

But a funny thing happened along the way. In April, the Marlins won a decent amount, and their run differential suggested they should have won more. At the beginning, we said to temper your expectations. By May, we said that the Marlins' performance was meaningful but the team was still not a contender.

Now we are past May and into June, and the Miami Marlins are half a game behind the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals for first place in the NL East.

Say that two months ago and I would have told you that this was a pipe dream, but so far, it has happened. Through much difficulty, including the loss of ace Jose Fernandez to Tommy John surgery earlier last month, the Fish have miraculously stayed in the race for the NL East against teams that were supposedly better. Now Miami faced an intriguing problem that Jeff Wiser of SB Nation's Beyond the Box Score higlighted: what do they do now?

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.

The premise here is one that we have repeated over the last two months: the Marlins are not a good enough team going forward to realistically compete for a division crown. The Fish have a number of players playing over their heads, and that may eventually catch up to them and turn their season south. At the end of the day, Miami does not have the talent to compete unless the team attempts to acquire players.

Of course, the Marlins may be poised to acquire talent, as they find themselves in a unique and strange situation. But that talent would come at a cost, and the Marlins would then have to weigh their future versus the present. How likely is Miami to make the playoffs this season with their current core? If you believe FanGraphs' projected playoff odds, then you would say somewhere close to nine percent. The Marlins, after all, are battling likely more talented teams for a race to the division or a one-game Wild Card playoff. It is an uphill climb.

The question then becomes where can the Marlins improve. It is easy to say that the Fish could bolster their bullpen, but it seems unlikely that picking up another non-closer-level arm could pick up more than a win tops for the Fish going forward. The team is unlikely to replace its worst position of shortstop, as the club seems enamored with Adeiny Hechavarria's questionably elite defense and all too forgiving of his putrid offense. Casey McGehee and Garrett Jones are playing better than expected, meaning they will not be replace. The question of second base is still well up in the air, and it is not certain Derek Dietrich is a true solution.

The area of most interest internally for Miami is at starting pitcher, where the Fish could promote Andrew Heaney (and promote him sooner rather than later) to replace either Randy Wolf, Jacob Turner, or Tom Koehler in the rotation. But with Fernandez's injury, Miami would still be down a legitimate starter behind Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez.

The Marlins could pursue a number of one-year pitching projects like Jason Hammel, but the question of what Miami can offer comes to mind. Miami has pitching depth in the minors, but their depth is not "top prospect" depth, but rather a number of players who profile as third or fourth starters in the majors at best behind Heaney. With Miami unlikely to trade their best chip, guys like Adam Conley or Justin Nicolino would be the best things they could offer. With those type of players, it is difficult to tell how much of an upgrade the team can get. For example, Jason Hammel is projected for one win for the rest of the season; if Miami were to acquire him tomorrow and replace a near-replacement level starter in their rotation, that improvement would still only boost the Fish another win at most.

Making just a trade for that type of player and the move to Andrew Heaney may improve Miami by 1.5 to two wins on the season. That is a start, but it likely does not put them within striking distance of Braves or Nationals unless some of the club's good fortune continues. Is a one-year rental worth it in that case?

Two things are clear at this point:

1) Miami will not go the route of seller in 2014. Much like last year, the Fish are stuck in a position with few veteran selling parts and too many young players. The lone exception is Giancarlo Stanton, who will not be traded in the midst of an MVP-caliber season with a contending Miami team right now.

2) Miami needs to make this decision fast. The Fish are known to strike early in the trade deadline process, but the longer they wait, the less impact the individual trades made will have. Miami is looking at adding potentially one or two wins to the team via acquisitions. If they wait another month to decide on their moves, it may be too late to make headway as the Fish begin to regress and fall by the wayside.

If the Marlins fancy themselves contenders and want to make small moves to add to the club, it seems like a reasonable play. If teams are willing to bite on the numerous Marlins pitching prospects down in the farm who are not named Andrew Heaney, the Fish could get a small upgrade for the rest of the season. That might be enough for a club that is not expected to compete to at least stay respectable. No trade is going to immediately put the Marlins in contention this year, but small moves could put the team over the top if their good luck continues. At this rate, that is what Miami can hope for in 2014.

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