There is a discussion about the differences between the thoughts the Miami Marlins have on their roster and the thoughts Marlins star Giancarlo Stanton has on the team around him. On the one hand, the Marlins think they are very close to a contender despite their near-100-loss pace in 2015. From the Miami Herald article that sparked the debate:
The Marlins believe they have a true core present for contention. We will debate that tomorrow, but it stands as the reason why the Fish think they are just "a piece or two away" from playoff standing.
Stanton, on the other hand, is not as convinced, or so the quote in the article would have you believe.
"We need a lot of changes," Stanton said.
The truth is, as always, somewhere in between, though it is much more likely to lie towards Stanton's quote than the front office's viewpoint. The Marlins are kidding themselves if they truly feel they are just a small couple of acquisitions away from being among the elites of the National League, even in a suddenly weakened NL East division. But when the question of how to improve the roster for 2016 comes up, no matter which side you are on, the answer remains the same:
That's a complicated question.
The reason why this is difficult stems from what the Marlins have done in recent years out of a combination of shortsightedness and poor judgment of talent. A series of mistakes in the past three years have left the Marlins in a precarious situation in which they neither have youth nor significant current talent on the roster.
2014: The Jarred Cosart trade
The Marlins were 4.5 games back of the Wild Card race with at least three teams in front of them when the club pulled the trigger on the Cosart deal. The trade was a mistake for several reasons right at the onset. The team gave up too much minor league talent to acquire Cosart, all in the name of lengthy team control. The club traded 2013 first-round pick Colin Moran and top-ten organizational prospect Jake Marisnick in the deal and acquired Cosart along with at least an intriguing name in Enrique Hernandez.
Cosart owned a nice ERA for his career at the time, but it was hiding an unacceptable strikeout-to-walk ratio that almost any rational team would have caught. The Marlins instead saw a mid-90's hurler throwing sinkers and figured it found a functional Henderson Alvarez clone with upside.
Forget the fact that Cosart has been horrible and injured for most of 2015. The minor league prospect price would only look worse heading into this offseason. Combine that with the fact that acquiring Cosart would likely not have dented the Marlins' gap in the race and this deadline overpay was a disaster.
2014: Tyler Kolek over Carlos Rodon in the 2014 MLB Draft
At the time, I defended this move, and I still do if you consider the team's situation at the time of the selection. Sure, you can claim that Rodon being in the majors now makes him better automatically than Kolek, but that is a shortsighted view. What makes this a mistake in retrospect is what the Marlins did later on.
2015: The Dee Gordon trade
The club traded four assets, chief among them pitching prospect Andrew Heaney, and acquired four years of Gordon and a free season of Dan Haren. Haren proved to be inconsequential in an otherwise awful Marlins season, while Gordon was an All-Star.
The problem is the price was still too high. Heaney was at or close to Major League-level, but the Marlins underestimated him based on 24 innings pitched in 2015. The team sent the underutilized Hernandez along with another middle-infield prospect in Austin Barnes because it had established its second baseman of the future, even though that player carried significant risks. Losing all of that minor league depth, however, really hampered the team's cost-controlled future. Barnes, Hernandez, and Heaney could definitely have been potential big-league contributors this year at positions of need. Instead, the Marlins only filled one spot instead of potentially two or three on the cheap.
2015: The Nathan Eovaldi trade
The Eovaldi deal sent a pitcher for a position player in a position of need. The Fish felt like they were trading from a position of depth, and they even acquired a pitcher in return whom they felt could replace Eovaldi if needed. Of course, the team underestimated Eovaldi, who proved to pitch well enough in New York to put up a two-plus win season by any measure. Meanwhile, the Marlins traded three years of a valuable pitcher to New York for two years of a reasonably valuable but declining infielder.
Never mind that Martin Prado did not play up to standards. The Fish gave up a prospect so the Yankees could eat Garrett Jones's terrible salary (a mistake in its own right), they traded the best asset in the deal (Eovaldi), and did not necessarily improve the amount of 2015 wins they would get.
All of these moves accomplished the following.
1) The Marlins have a barren minor league system.
The team traded arguably their top three prospects at one point or another, including their previous two first-round draft picks. Combined with fast promotions, and that has left their system bereft of talent ready to help in the next two years. The one free place they could have acquired this kind of near-ready talent would have been with the Rodon selection, but they bypassed him for higher upside and higher risk in Kolek. At the time, this may have been an understandable risk, but knowing what they eventually decided to do with their pitching depth, it seems like a terrible idea in hindsight.
2) They traded all of their pitching depth.
The Marlins dealt Heaney, Anthony DeSclafani, and Eovaldi in one offseason. They also traded Domingo German. They banked on the development of Justin Nicolino and Jose Urena, and they did get lucky in the development of Kendry Flores, but the club entered the year hoping one of those three or four remaining minor league upperclassmen would show themselves ready for the show by 2016. None of them appear to be at that point, at least at the levels that Eovaldi, Heaney, and DeSclafani are currently showing.
3) They have no trade assets.
The Marlins are left in a complicated spot with trade assets that are fundamental to the team's core or no trade assets at all. The Fish cleared out their minor league system, so dipping into that well would be difficult. Too many of the few productive players have been pointed out as "core" pieces. The truly core players have tremendous trade value but should not be dealt. In total, Miami's ability to acquire outside talent by trade is hampered by its recent deals and how sour they have turned.
4) They still refuse to spend money.
This is a systemic, ongoing problem, but it is worse for a barren team like Miami. When a team like the Marlins runs into this predicament, it can either sell off all of their big league parts to recoup the system or buy up talent with money to supplement the core. Miami cannot trade guys like Stanton, Christian Yelich, or Jose Fernandez to boost the team. However, it cannot improve the squad with free agent signings because the ownership group refuses to boast a high payroll, citing low attendance as a continued issue despite a move to a publicly funded, almost entirely privately owned park.
5) They cannot sell off their assets for a full rebuild.
The team drastically changed course and tried to go all in after the 2014 squad's surprise success. It eschewed the slow and steady rebuild that the early-2000's Marlins did in order to reach the 2003 summit. As a result, the Marlins are now committed to a shorter time window for winning. This is especially evident with Giancarlo Stanton's contract, one that contains an opt-out clause after six years. If Stanton does not get the competitive club he desires, the team will almost certainly lose him, so selling off 2013-style for an Astros-style rebuild would be unacceptable and a waste of Stanton's greatly beneficial six-year deal.
This leaves the Marlins as a team that cannot build from within due to limited minor league talent thanks to some disastrous "go for it" big league trades. It cannot trade because of said lack of talent both at the minor and Major League levels. And it cannot sign players because it consistently cries poor. How will the Marlins plan on improving their roster with these limitations and a risk-averse front office prone to mistakes? It is a difficult conundrum.