Continuity is a good thing sometimes. The Miami Marlins certainly believe that to be the case, as many of their moves in 2015 and this past offseason were aimed at maintaining as much continuity on the roster as possible. The Fish wisely signed Giancarlo Stanton to a record contract that could keep him in Miami for another 13 years. They also made two trades involving recently-drafted players in favor of team-controlled assets in Jarred Cosart and Dee Gordon. The Fish looked to lock up players whom they felt were cornerstones of the franchise in Jose Fernandez, Christian Yelich, and Adeiny Hechavarria to long-term deals. All of these moves were aimed at laying down a foundation around Stanton that would be around for some time.
The Marlins, with this current roster, are projected to be a .500 team in 2015 by most sources. For better or worse, this roster may be what the Marlins have for the next few seasons as well. You can thank the team's recent moves and its history in free agency for that.
The Marlins are in an interesting situation. Their roster, at least according to the front office, is not littered with holes at the top of the depth chart. The Marlins, as of right now, like everyone who is starting for the team. The best outfield in baseball is under team control through 2020 (whether they make it to that point is a different question to be answered much later). The infield is now replenished with moves for Gordon, Michael Morse, and Martin Prado. Morse and Prado are both signed through 2016 for reasonable prices. On the pitching side, the trio of Jose Fernandez, Henderson Alvarez, and Jarred Cosart are under team control as well through at least 2017, with Fernandez and Cosart locked in for longer.
At the same time, the Marlins also have almost no depth behind those players. The young starting pitching options with which the Fish were once flush are now depleted thanks to trades for Gordon and Mat Latos. The team will depend on guys like Justin Nicolino, Jose Urena, and Adam Conley as their closest major-league ready starters, but each has significant flaws. And while the infield may be set for now, the Marlins have no depth to support that cast. Gordon needs to stick for his remaining four years, because the Fish have just one prospect who at this point could be expected to become his successor should he fail.
This leaves the Marlins essentially locked into their lineup through 2016 and 2017. In some ways, that is good. It promotes continuity, which could help the team's clubhouse chemistry and would be beneficial for the fans. After all, what fan base wants to go through the revolving door that has befallen clubs like the Oakland Athletics in recent years?
The downside to this is that if the Marlins find out that any number of these players are poorer than expected, the team will not be able to improve from within. This is unlikely to be an issue in the outfield, where the trio of Stanton, Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna are formidable, but the infield remains questionable. Both Gordon and Hechavarria are keys to success who could swing wildly one way or another in terms of skill, and we already discussed how Gordon is a low-upside player to begin with.
No Trade Value
The Marlins took measures to improve their roster this past year with trades, but their options for dealing players may be running thin. As we discussed yesterday, the team's farm system is out of trade value, with Tyler Kolek, Nicolino, and maybe J.T. Realmuto holding mild, realistic trade value. The team got rid of a lot of its depth to make the moves it did this season, but it appears the club is out of minor league bullets to use.
What kind of deals can Miami pull off? With the current farm system, a trade like the one for Latos seems the most realistic. The Fish dealt two fringe prospects, one significantly closer to the majors than the other, but only received one year of Latos at a reasonable cost. The trade was complicated by Latos's recent injury history as well, so it is not as though Miami assured itself a major upgrade. The Fish have the talent to pull off that kind of trade if necessary, but the player type is more of a guy on a near-expiring deal who is perhaps around an average contributor. To get a sense of that kind of player, consider upcoming last-year guys who may put up close to average production like Cincinnati Reds starter Mike Leake or A's starter Scott Kazmir as examples.
Free Agency Solution
If the Marlins run into any issues with their players, they could be in trouble over the next three years thanks to their limited routes to improvement. The team is expected to have a few open slots starting next year with the likely departures of Latos and Dan Haren from the rotation. Maybe a Nicolino or Urena can take over for one, but if the Marlins want to improve, they may have to search for assistance elsewhere.
This is where free agency is so critical. The Fish are at the border of competitiveness, in an area of the win curve where each win is more and more valuable than the last. This is around the right spot where a competitive franchise with an ownership interested in winning would risk spending on an impact free agent to bolster the club. As luck would have it, the 2016 free agent market is flush with impact starting pitchers, from the high-end names like David Price, Jordan Zimmermann, and Johnny Cueto to good guys like Rick Porcello and Jeff Samardzija, Each of these guys is expected to post more than three wins next year, and each would be a premium addition over an empty slot for Miami.
Each would also probably cost a hefty $100 million commitment from the franchise. The Marlins have so far shown unwillingness to commit to non-stars, and that is a smart approach. But if the team is knocking on contention's door, the math changes, and a big move may be the right play with no other options. Would the Marlins go for such a move? At this stage, it is impossible to say one way or another, but history is not the team's side.