The Miami Marlins are clearly going for it this year, and their fan base approves of the move, although some moves have been better than others. The Fish are trying to improve on a core that featured an MVP-level performance from Giancarlo Stanton and only a month and change of Jose Fernandez pitching. The team thinks it has done that by bolstering the Major League club with additions of Mat Latos, Dee Gordon, Michael Morse, and Martin Prado.
The Fish going for it in most seasons after last year may have been reasonable but questionable. The club did well last season, but it would have been hard to expect a few of those players who played well last year to repeat those performances. In particular, there is no guarantee that Stanton himself will repeat an MVP-level campaign, including his health. More importantly, last year the Fish faced two competitors who were expected to be strong in the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals. The Braves had a mediocre end of season, but had those two teams restocked or stayed put, Miami would have faced a difficult three-headed race for the division crown.
The situation, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post points out in a recent article, has changed.
That means greater intrigue within the NL East. The Braves and Phillies are among the few organizations prioritizing years beyond 2015. Atlanta is opening a new stadium in 2017 and is trying to gather a talent base that will allow it to move into that facility with a strong club. Phillies executives actually have muttered the "R" word, as in rebuilding.
As one AL executive said, "Rarely do you get two teams in your division mailing it in at this point any more."
The Marlins are now no longer facing a third team clearly in front of them in the race for the division. The New York Mets are in a similar space as the Marlins, with a returning ace from injury and a young team potentially ready to make a leap. What they are missing is an MVP candidate like Stanton and recent additions to add to the team's core. But while those two teams are at similar levels, the other two ballclubs behind the Nationals in the division are tanking. The Philadelphia Phillies and Braves are both suffering from a dearth of big-league talent and are not expected to compete for the division. Both teams are among the five or six worst clubs based on current expectations for 2015, and they both reside in the same division.
What that means for Miami and New York is a clearer path to the top. The Nationals remain the best team in the division, and if you believe FanGraphs' current projections, the Fish and Mets are still a good deals away. But with two teams in the cellar, the competition in the division should provide a fair number of easier wins for both middle-range clubs.
And while the Marlins had no idea the Braves had planned to deal Jason Heyward and Justin Upton and go backwards at the big-league level, they certainly chose the right time to jump into the competitive war. The team gained an edge over the Mets in acquiring talent to improve their infield. They probably boosted their chances a little; FanGraphs has them as an 81-win team next year, which is about a three- to four-win improvement over what the 2014 club ended at. But with no competitive Braves team in the mix, the Marlins have a clear shot at second place in the NL East, and if things break the right way, a division or Wild Card contention is not out of the question.
What kind if things have to break right? A competitive year from guys like Latos would a nice start. A repeat campaign from Stanton, Gordon, Henderson Alvarez, and others who did well last season. Jarred Cosart having figured something out in terms of strikeouts. Continued development and growth of Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. Adeiny Hechavarria's defensive numbers matching up with his apparent reputation.
All of those things are worth a win here and there. But the Marlins are closer than ever to the top, and if a couple of those things go right, second place can start to look like first place. With worse competition around them, Miami has an opportunity it has not truly seen since 2009 and 2010.