The Miami Marlins made it pretty clear they believe they have a strong core and are just a few players away from division and playoff contention. Their stated reasoning for it is simple:
"The record, in our mind, doesn’t change the evaluation," [team president David Samson] said. "It’s hard not to believe [you have a playoff-contending core when] you have one of the top three pitchers and one of the top three position players in baseball on one team. That’s hard to find. We may be the only team that has that."
The club thinks that having two of the best players in baseball is more than enough to start up a fantastic team ready for contention. To some degree, this is true; if you think that the Marlins need to reach about 40 Wins Above Replacement to reach playoff contention, the Fish are already at least eight or nine wins into the race with just two players on board.
But we should examine what the rest of that "core" looks like and see if the team is really as close to contention as they think. And we should also examine what players constitute as "core" performers.
What constitutes a team's core? It should be a group of players that share some combination of age, overall skill and team-controlled time. A good player on the last year of his deal and unlikely to re-sign is not a part of a team's future core (think David Price with the Detroit Tigers). An average arbitration-controlled player on the older side may not count as well. It is a more difficult question than it initially seems. You are looking at a player who will be a top producer on the team for the next two or three great versions of that team.
Take an example from another team. If you had to point out the "core" of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who would you select? Chances are you would point out their outfield of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco. McCutchen is an absolute star-level player and still under team control for a few more years. Marte is signed long-term to a cheap deal and is developing into a three-win player. Polanco is at least an average player right now and he has five more years of team control remaining. Chances are you would also select Gerrit Cole on the pitching side, since he is the team's ace and having a star-level campaign for the team.
More importantly, check out the names of guys you would not consider "core" members. Neil Walker had a 3.5-win season last year and has been above average each of the last three years. He is also 29 years old and heading into free agency in 2017, meaning the Pirates only have another year of control left on him. He may be someone the team could easily let loose in free agency without re-signing instead of risking a multi-year deal.
Who easily counts as a part of a core like the guys above for the Pirates? It is harder to say for the Marlins, but there are a few obvious choices.
1) Giancarlo Stanton
2) Jose Fernandez
Call this the "superstar" tier. This a group of guys who are under reasonable team control and elite talents. Neither Stanton nor Fernandez have question marks about their abilities and need for further development; provided they stay healthy, there is no question that they will produce at a high level. Stanton is the equivalent of McCutchen on the Pirates' side, while Fernandez is at or better than his Pirates counterpart Gerrit Cole.
3) Christian Yelich
Yelich corresponds to the "promising future" player that Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco fall into. Marte is seemingly more established, as he did not have a struggle of a season like Yelich has had this year, but Yelich is not quite as unaccomplished as Polanco is. Thus, Yelich is somewhere in between those two players, but nonetheless, he is in their same category of core-type players. He is also signed to a long-term deal, meaning the Marlins have a lot of team control time left for him to develop. His youth makes it much more likely that he returns to the levels we saw in 2014, when he put up a four-win campaign on the back of a Gold Glove season.
Beyond those three players, however, it is hard to find anyone who truly counts as a "core" member, a guy who might be an All-Star contributor for the next few great Marlins contending teams. There are arguments for a few players.
1) Marcell Ozuna
Ozuna would have been a part of that core before this season, but he has played badly enough that there is plenty of question as to whether or not he can be more than an average player going forward. Average is by no means bad, but it is not the type of player to whom a team might commit to keeping, and it certainly is not the star-caliber player we saw for much of last season. Ozuna right now is expected to produce, but not enough to be a core, "untouchable" part of this franchise.
2) Dee Gordon
3) Adeiny Hechavarria
These two are the players where the analytic Marlins blogs and the front office tend to differ on. Gordon is having an excellent season, a better year this year than he did in 2014 with the Dodgers, but there are still questions to be asked. He did all of this on the back of a .389 BABIP, which may not be sustainable heading into next season. He does not seem to have improved anywhere else in his game offensively. The nice advantage is that he seems to have gotten better defensively. Overall, the expectation is that Gordon is a 2.5- to three-win player going forward, and that may fall right in the Neil Walker range of talent that would be questionable to extend and to commit to as part of the core of a team.
Hechavarria has had a breakout campaign this year defensively, having shown off great numbers for the first time in his career to back up the eye test. However, at age 27 for the 2016 season, he probably is not going to get a whole lot better at the plate and, like Gordon, he has shown no new skills at the dish as compared to last year. He has mostly maintained his work from last season. It is hard to project a performance any better than this one unless he goes on to be an Andrelton Simmons-level defender for the next few years like he has been this year.
This is not to say that both of these players are not contributors for the Marlins. But just like Dan Uggla in the late 2000's Marlins and Neil Walker for this group of Pirates were support players placed around a good foundation of core guys, Gordon and Hechavarria seem more like supporting role players around the stars or potential stars on the team. They are important, but only if the club can find improvements elsewhere on the roster to make this team better overall. If the club opts for a different direction, neither Gordon nor Hechavarria should be seen as indispensable parts.
4) J.T. Realmuto
Realmuto is young and under a lot of team control time, but he is not yet productive enough to be considered a potential future star piece. He has been solid this season, but he has to show a little more discipline at the plate in order to assist with his strong defensive profile.
5) Henderson Alvarez
Alvarez has one and a half good seasons under his belt, in 2014, and most sources have those years being league average campaigns overall. The Fish also cannot depend on him given his recurrent shoulder injuries. He is settling far more likely as a solid third or fourth starter, a league average contributor who, once again, is great for a team who is closing in on the prize but not to be confounded with a significant part of that team's future.
The Marlins have a few good support players, and there is an argument to say that at least one of either Gordon (three-win player, All-Star the last two years, under three years of team control) or Ozuna (former 3.5-win player, major youth and upside) could be a part of that core. But this team has three players who are true prime candidates and a few other support talents with plenty of question marks behind them. Heck, even the core talents have some serious question marks. The team is probably not as close as they think they are.