The Miami Marlins are supposedly using the final few weeks of the season to determine their plans for 2016. Not only is this is a terribly small sample size, it subsequently may over- or underestimate the ability of this roster, which itself is limited in options heading into the 2016 offseason. Owner Jeffrey Loria may think the Marlins have a few ways they could go, but with their real-life restrictions on payroll and talent, the team has but a few options in their bag for improving the roster. The team is working with a number of problems inherent to the system thanks to the mistakes of the past few years, and as a result the club has only a small number of ways to go.
What follows is a summary of those plans, and the problems that may arise from them. None of them are ideal for a variety of reasons, as we will discuss.
Option 1: Go Nuclear
The Plan: Loria decides the current roster, much like the 2012 roster, is not going to succeed and would not be worth the salary he would have to pay to make it work. He therefore retains only three players not under pre-arbitration contracts: Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Jose Fernandez. The remainder of the roster of salaried players is dealt in a 2012 fire-sale manner in order to salvage as much cheap, near-ready prospect talent available. That means dealing Dee Gordon, Marcell Ozuna, Henderson Alvarez, Martin Prado, Adeiny Hechavarria, and others and stripping the roster of anyone who will cost more than $1 million to afford.
With this plan, the Marlins are opting for a longer-term rebuild a la the Houston Astros or Chicago Cubs. They would rebuild a broken farm system, utilize any and all available minor league options, and keep only the guys who will be contributors for the next great team. Said team may only occur in 2018 or 2019, much like what has happened in Chicago and Houston. In the meantime, the club has to suffer through some hard times figuring out who among the younger players are keepers and which players are expendables.
The Problem: The fan base has already been through so many of these "fire sales" that another one would be even further demoralizing. Even if it does not involve the team's two most recognizable stars, it would appear like another white flag and money-saving routine by Loria disguised as a future-building effort. In addition, by the time the team may be ready to compete, the Marlins will have wasted a fair amount of Stanton's cheap seasons and Fernandez's team-controlled time. This would make them frustrated with the roster and its moves and more willing to leave the team just when it re-establishes itself.
Bonus move: The team trades Fernandez for a bevy of players, infuriating Marlins fans everywhere and, truthfully, trading a player who will probably never pitch in Miami long-term. This frees the Marlins up a bit more on their timetable, making the 2018 or 2019 estimate more bearable.
Option 2: Spend Spend Spend
The Plan: Loria decides that this current group is reasonable, but is still a bit too far from the title. He decides to pull the 2012 gambit again and spends a lot of money on premium free agent talent. The team is in need of pitching and, lo and behold, the free agent market is brimming with premium starter talent! The Marlins go after and acquire David Price and either Johnny Cueto or Jordan ZImmermann, adding an easy eight wins to their current rotation full of potentially replacement-level talent.
This would sound unreasonable if the roster were a true-talent .427 win percentage team, the equivalent of a 69-win ballclub in a full season. But the Marlins have actually played below their expected production just based on their hits and pitching performance. Based on the BaseRuns run-scoring model that FanGraphs provides, Miami has played closer to a 75-win team in a full year, and that is with about half a season of Stanton and Fernandez. With fuller campaigns from both and new additions at pitcher totaling a large bolus of wins, the Marlins could easily be bumped up to 85 wins and much closer to contention.
The Problem: Two such contracts would probably cost the Fish at least $50 million in 2016 alone and would probably commit them to a staggering $350 million in salary over the next seven years to two players alone! Needless to say that Loria would balk at such a commitment, much like he balked at the 2012 roster. Furthermore, the plan would necessitate Miami stick with the team for more than a year, and everyone knows even a sniff of losing may cause Loria to hit the panic button and abort such a costly mission.
Option 3: Wait and See
The Plan: The Marlins hold onto their current core, not opting to deal anyone they currently have in terms of long-term options. They evaluate young players heading into early arbitration years and assess whether there is a chance the team can retain them. It correctly identifies Yelich, Stanton, and Fernandez as building blocks and attempts to retain them and keep them happy in the clubhouse. It does not jettison players immediately, but neither does it get unnecessarily attached to them. It makes small veteran signings to bolster its group and hopes to have a few more balls bounce their way a la the Minnesota Twins in 2015.
The Problem: It is a plan that trends towards mediocrity without a good measure of luck, either on the field or through the draft. It also is risky because it would involve Miami being able to be patient with a roster and commit to changes only when necessary. Ultimately, this is the safest route and the one the team will most likely try to emulate. The Marlins tried this in 2014 with reasonable success, even though the signings themselves were eventual failures. But there is no guarantee a slight uptick or downtick in performance will not lead to more drastic changes when they were not necessary.
If you're a Marlins fan, which would you rather see?