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The Miami Marlins, balance, and the new market inefficiency

The Miami Marlins look to be on their way to another series of cheap seasons under the watch of owner Jeffrey Loria. But recent teams have shown a way for franchises to succeed despite small payrolls without finding copious superstars.

Josh Donaldson and Coco Crisp represent another path to contention for low-payroll teams like the Marlins.
Josh Donaldson and Coco Crisp represent another path to contention for low-payroll teams like the Marlins.
Thearon W. Henderson

All of the news coming out of the Miami Marlins' camp as the 2013 season winds down is that the franchise is being fully run by owner Jeffrey Loria at this point, with only a few people like current assistant general manager Dan Jennings having influence on the tempestuous owner. Given Loria's nature, Marlins fans can expect more seasons of cheap roster-building in the future.

Jonah Keri of Grantland mentioned something in yesterday's "The 30" column that pointed out a way to make winning a reality on a small payroll.

And that's why Oakland's goal remains the same every year: Build a roster with as few weaknesses as possible. If every player you put on the field can hold his own, amazing things can happen. You can extend a big inning with a walk, get big outs from your bullpen in the sixth and seventh and not just the ninth, and keep your team in a game when your fifth starter gives you six solid innings. Though baseball is fundamentally a sport based on one-on-one matchups, it's also a team sport in the sense that everyone gets a chance to be a hero at some point. Better, then, to have a squad stuffed with competence rather than a team consisting of a couple of stars and a whole lot of scrubs.


It can happen, and it can happen quickly. Especially if they recognize one of baseball's most obvious and most important advances: Players who don't suck are the new market inefficiency.

Keri's point, made in support of teams like the Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Tampa Bay Rays, is that a franchise does not necessarily need to pump out premiere minor league talent each year or spend millions upon millions in free agency to acquire stars. Not every team is so lucky to do that. But the A's and Pirates in particular have furnished their winning teams on a model of balance on their roster in that every player, from the worst starter to the middle-most bullpen pitcher, has been at least useful.

The Oakland A's are an excellent example, as Keri puts it in the article, because they did not succeed in raising farm-bred talent like the Rays did over the last six seasons. Yet when you look at the team's position players, only two of the nine guys with more than 300 plate appearances have been below average this season. On the flip side, only one (Josh Donaldson) has been a star talent. The rest have been an average-or-better group of castoffs via trade like Jed Lowrie, legitimate investments like Yoenis Cespedes, or bargain-bin pickups like Brandon Moss or Coco Crisp.

The pitching side has been less fortunate, as the good group from last season has actually struggled a bit more this year, but the team's bullpen is filled with cheap options like Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle who have been dominant. The point is that, with a little luck and shrewd decision-making, the A's have emerged from a quiet rebuilding mode to their second straight AL West division title. And they have done so not by finding an ace starter or an elite position player talent (though Donaldson has been excellent this year), but primarily from sporting very few holes on their roster.

On their position player side, only some of their four-outfield platoon monster has struggled, while the rest of the lineup has been average or better. Their pitching staff contains an oddly strong Bartolo Colon and a series of almost two-win pitchers. All of that adds up; the A's are fifth in position player Wins Above Replacement (WAR) by FanGraphs and 10th in pitching WAR. That leaves them among the better teams in baseball despite a pittance of a payroll that ranks as the fourth-lowest in baseball.

What does this have to do with the Marlins? That means that the Fish can also build a competitor without necessarily purchasing elite talent in free agency. The team does not have the handicap that the A's had the last two years; the Marlins have at least two superstar talents on the roster right now with Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez hopefully anchoring the roster in the coming years. The team also has impressive prospect depth, at least in the starting rotation and outfield, similar to what the A's boasted in the last few years. The franchise has the basis to start a competitive team.

The problem with Miami is that the basis is all it has. Aside from Stanton, the next two Marlins position players who have been average on the season are Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, both of whom have logged less than 300 plate appearances. Seven non-Stanton players have logged more plate appearances than Ozuna, and those players have a combined WAR total of two wins below replacement level. In other words, the franchise has had no help for its star player, who himself has struggled this year.

The Marlins have very little minor league depth at many of the infield positions, but they may be able to get away with a combination of in-house talent and smart decisions in free agency or trades to find players who are closer to league average than the team's current stock. Because there are no stars coming up from the pipeline or in free agency, the Marlins need to find Coco Crisp-style talents or effective platoon partners for the players they have to help compensate for weaknesses.

This may seem obvious, but essentially the Marlins have to fill the holes they have. The enlightening idea here is that those holes can be filled cheaply if the team spends money and does it wisely. That means no throwing away $9 million on players like Heath Bell or depending on scrubs like Ed Lucas to carry a position for a year. The Fish would have to strike a middle ground between spending like the Detroit Tigers or like, well, the Marlins of today.

But as long as Jeffrey Loria is owning and essentially operating this team, it seems unlikely either of those two above scenarios will play out. Loria's cheapskate ways may prevent the team from spending more than it needs to to maintain the status quo. If the team does spend, Loria's influence on player personnel may lead to boneheaded moves rather than the smart ones these other franchises have perpetrated. As always, even the least challenging path to contention for Miami still has Loria as the limiting factor.

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