We didn’t know, but probably should have expected, that Jeff Loria’s Marlins museum would be deaccessioning its major pieces this winter when we commissioned this Designated Columnists piece from Bill Parker attempted to find a plausible scenario in which the Marlins could be competitive in 2013. Before we could run the story came the deluge, and many of the players upon whom Bill’s plans were contingent were washed away to Toronto. Undeterred, we asked Bill to come back and try again even after Tuesday’s bloodletting. First we’ll give you what Bill proposed before the trade took place, a token of what might have been had Jeff Loria kept faith with the taxpayers and fans who built him his ballpark, followed by his admittedly desperate post-trade attempts to envision how the team could be resuscitated by next spring. —Steven Goldman, MLB League Editor
Before the Diaspora
At the end of last week, Michael ran two posts here on whether the Marlins should be buyers or sellers heading into 2013. Both plans, though, focused on winning in 2014; even as "buyers," Michael’s hypothetical Marlins were buying assets that would be most likely to help them a year and a half from now. This makes a lot of sense -- having lost 93 games in 2012 and lost at a 103-loss pace over the second half, it’s not a team that it makes a lot of sense to expect to compete right away next season.
Still, it’s mid-November, and aside from Opening Day, there’s no better time for dreaming by baseball fans than now. With the whole offseason in front of them, can we imagine a scenario in which the Marlins are competitive in 2013?
We’ll use Baseball-Reference’s WAR for these purposes, and we’ll aim for 85 wins. That total might get them the second wildcard by itself, and at any rate, it’s within the range where some good luck and/or some good midseason moves could push them over the top.
Winning 85 games would mean a 16-game improvement over 2012, but we have to assume that the plate appearances or innings taken up by the 2012 versions of Greg Dobbs (-2.1 WAR), Bryan Petersen (-1.7), Scott Cousins (-1.0), Gorkys Hernandez (-0.7), Brett Hayes (- 0.9) and Mike Dunn (-0.9) will be given over to players who are at least capable of producing at or around replacement level, and that Chris Coghlan (-1.4) will either play better or be shipped out for a replacement player himself. That’s roughly nine wins that the Marlins lost simply by not being able to put average Triple-A starters on the field in place of those guys. Let’s say they can’t replace them all with "replacement-level" players, and that instead of -8.7 wins, the crew that fills in for those guys combines for -0.7. That by itself takes us halfway there, from 69 wins to 77.
We should give some wins back for the veterans the Marlins lost mid-season, but not a ton. Hanley Ramirez produced only half a win above replacement with the Marlins. Anibal Sanchez produced 1.4, but that was more or less adequately replaced by Jacob Turner and Wade LeBlanc. Omar Infante was the one real loss, having produced 1.8 wins at the time he was traded away, and Dylan Solano did a poor job of replacing that. Accordingly, let’s say that they lost a total of three wins from their 2012 squad to the 2013 one thanks to the departures of Infante, Ramirez and Sanchez (we’d expect those three to perform better than that in 2013, of course, but remember that that’s not what we’re doing; we’re looking only to replace and outperform what they actually gave the Marlins in 2012).
Altogether, then, we’re looking at an improvement by another eleven wins to get the 2013 squad to 85. Here’s where I see those coming from:
1. Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton has gotten markedly better in each year in the league, and it’s hard to remember that he just turned 23 last week. He put up 5.4 WAR in 2012 despite missing 39 games with injuries. His simply staying healthy enough to play in 150 games won’t get the Marlins much further, though, because one of his fill-ins was Justin Ruggiano, who posted 2.3 WAR on the season. Let’s say our 2012 baseline is Stanton’s 150-game pace of 6.7 WAR, but that he takes a third consecutive huge step forward in 2013 and has a truly MVP-caliber season: 150 games at something like a .300/.390/.600 line, which combined with his typically stellar defense would produce 8.5 wins above replacement. That gets us an extra 1.8 wins; 9.2 wins left to find.
2. Logan Morrison. LoMo has plenty of talent at the plate, but 2012 was a lost year and the field has always been an adventure. It’s time to stop pretending Morrison is an outfielder and install him as the full-time first baseman. Marlins first basemen (including Morrison) hit just .229/.299/.324 in 2012, an 82 OPS+; the average big-league team’s first basemen hit .262/.336/.442, a 114 OPS+. Say Morrison comes back healthy and puts up numbers similar to what he did in his partial rookie season of 2010 (.283/.390/.447, 123 OPS+), and that, placed full-time into his natural position, he proves to be at least average with the glove, and gets the team 3.0 wins above replacement in his 150 games. That improves upon not only Lomo’s -0.2 from 2012, but covers a multitude of first-base sins; we’ve already absolved the 2013 Marlins of Dobbs (who played some first base), but then there’s the damage that was done by Carlos Lee (-0.5 in 81 games) and Gaby Sanchez (-1.0 in 55). Just by virtue of a (very plausible) modest breakout at age 25, Morrison nets the Marlins about a 4.5-win year over year improvement at first base. (I’m assuming that Ruggiano, perhaps with a cheap platoon partner, more or less hold serve in left field.) Lo and behold, we’re suddenly just 4.7 wins from 85.
3. The bullpen shake-up. I think the Marlins made a mistake in dealing Heath Bell, whose underlying numbers weren’t those of a pitcher who had lost it as completely as Bell seemed to in 2012. Either way, though, Bell cost the team -0.7 wins by WAR, and quite possibly more than that given the necessarily inopportune timing of a closer’s blowups. Steve Cishek has emerged as a more than capable bullpen arm who likely takes over at closer, and Ryan Webb probably slides up to take a more prominent role as well; Webb’s ERA went up this year despite his underlying numbers getting better across the board, so expect him to improve by at least half a win on the 0.2 WAR he posted in 2012. Good luck for Webb plus Bell’s absence means an extra 1.2 wins out of the bullpen. We’re now 3.5 wins!
4. Josh Johnson. In the real world, as Ehsan Kassim noted here in September, the Marlins should probably consider dealing Johnson, who proved healthy and effective after missing most of 2011 with a shoulder injury, and who is set to become a free agent after the season. But this is our daydream, and here the Marlins are going to contend, and are going to need guys like Johnson around to join in the fun. And while he was solid in 2012, all of his numbers were off just a tick from his peak; say Johnson’s really fully healthy in 2013, and jumps from 3.1 WAR to, oh, 5.1. Only 2.5 wins to go!
5. B.J. Upton. Why not? As currently situated, the Marlins need a third baseman. They’ve currently got a center fielder, Emilio Bonifacio, who appears at least as well suited to play third base as center. Move him to third -- where he could well rebound and be considerably less terrible than his 0.5-WAR 2012, but let’s say he stays just the same -- and bring the elder Upton brother downstate to take over center. Upton, aged 28, has averaged 2.7 WAR over the past two seasons, and he could certainly provide more than that (and has, per FanGraphs’ WAR, but I’m not about to change horses now), but if all he does is repeat that 2.7, that gets us to our goal, with two tenths left over.
None of these hypotheticals are huge stretches. No, the Marlins probably won’t add payroll to take on a guy like Upton, but they weren’t expected to do anything like that last year, either. Even if they don’t, there are other ways to find 2.5 wins (the catching situation could hardly get worse than it was, for example). The 2011 Orioles’ 69-93 record exactly matched the 2012 Marlins’, and they went out and reversed it in 2012 with an improvement of 24 wins. Is it that crazy to think that the Marlins could see an improvement just two-thirds that big?
It’s very, very far from likely, of course. The problem isn’t so much that any one of these things is unlikely as it is that every one of them happening together is very unlikely, and that even if they happened, they’d have to avoid catastrophe in other areas (say Mark Buehrle suddenly loses it, or Jose Reyes suffers another crippling hamstring injury). It’s not the kind of thing anyone should ever plan on, and the Marlins would probably be smart to follow one or the other of Michael’s plans to retool for 2014. As I said, it’s the offseason, and the offseason (especially the early part of it) is for dreaming. What else are you going to do, watch basketball?
After the Diaspora
Well. That was the "before" version. Before, you know, the Blue Jays swept in and carried off seemingly half of the team, including one of the big factors listed above (Johnson) and two others I was relying on to do more or less what they did in 2012 (Reyes and Buehrle). How does this end well now?
The Marlins’ paths to success are harder to see and vanishing more quickly than Mitt Romney’s did eight days ago. Frankly -- and I say this as a Marlins outsider, but from a place of love and good intentions -- the Fish suddenly look very much like the worst team in baseball. Anything like the rosy outlook above depended on, in addition to Johnson’s five wins, three or so each from Reyes and Buehrle. That’s 11wins, knocking them back down to 74-88 ... and that’s if everything else above goes just right, and they add B.J. Upton -- which we can safely assume isn’t happening now, so make it 15 wins. Let’s find ways to make up those 15 wins elsewhere.
Here we go. First, Stanton skips the MVP-caliber step and goes straight to the stratosphere, a .330/.420/.650, 50-homer, Gold Glove sort of year. It’s not 8.5 wins, it’s 10.5.
Second, for the last four years, Ricky Nolasco has had results that haven’t reflected brilliant peripherals; accordingly, he’s averaged 3.3 wins by FanGraphs’ peripherals-based system compared to just 1.0 by Baseball Reference’s. In 2013, it turns out that he really has just been unlucky all this time, and he posts 3.5 WAR, a two-win improvement on 2012.
Third, Ruggiano proves it was no fluke, and does in 700 plate appearances exactly what he did in 320 of them in 2012, which would give him about five wins, two and a half more than we were planning on from left field.
Fourth, incoming infielder Yunel Escobar bounces back to what he did in 2011, amassing 4.4 WAR -- about 1.5 more than we were counting on from Reyes.
Fifth, catcher Rob Brantly builds on his excellent first 113 plate appearances to establish himself as another Brian McCann. McCann's minor league career was not substantially more distinguished than Brantly's was, but the former put up 4.1 WAR in his first full big-league season; Brantly does just that in 2013, improving by a full four wins on the 0.1 WAR Marlins catchers combined to provide in 2012.
Sixth, the rest of the slack is picked up with a great leap forward from Jacob Turner, who came into 2012 as Baseball America’s #22 prospect; at just 22, he suddenly matures into the number- two starter Kevin Goldstein thought he could be, posting 4.0 WAR -- about three more than the above expects from him.
Voila! Add that all up, and we’re again up 14 wins, back to about 85 wins on the season. And ... that’s not happening, kids. I’m sorry. It could happen, but it won’t. It’s a fun thing to think about and to hope for, but I’d spend a lot more of my hoping time on the Marlins’ farm system, and on hoping that by the time those guys start to arrive, the forces of common sense, justice and basic fairness have combined to put a new owner in place.
Bill Parker is one of SBN’s Designated Columnists and one of the creators of The Platoon Advantage.
Follow him at @Bill_TPA.