The Miami Marlins got their starting pitcher, as the Fish signed free agent Wei-Yin Chen to a five-year, $80 million contract yesterday. This occurred after months of the team sitting on its hand, content with a roster that suffered through several injuries and was not a competitive squad. In the offseason, we questioned what direction the Marlins should take, noting that the team could easily see the failure of 2015 and decide a rebuild would be a good idea. They could just as easily guess that the team has a chance and make a big splash, and while Chen is not a major move, it is a significant one.
In fact, it is enough to suggest that the Marlins are interested in competing in the 2016 season.
For the last few months, there has been talk about the Marlins trying to upgrade their rotation, but all of the discussions seemingly revolved around the potential trading of Marcell Ozuna. It appears the Marlins are less interested in dealing Ozuna now. But prior to the Chen signing, the team definitely left mixed signals as to whether they were interested in going for it in a bid for 2016 or were going to pass on the season. After all, the Marlins often switch plans on the fly, and the 2015 year had to be a disappointment for a club that made short-term moves to try and compete. The early offseason talk surrounding Ozuna, and later on around ace starter Jose Fernandez, began to point the needle more towards Miami trading off its assets and looking to rebuild.
On the opposite side, however, was Miami's interest in locking up Dee Gordon to a long-term deal. Early this morning, more discussion started creeping up that Miami was interested in signing Gordon long-term sooner rather than later, despite the fact that he would be a smart candidate on whom to sell high and explore the team's options. In the wake of the Chen signing, the push to keep Gordon around longer seems even more likely and understandable based on the team's likely inflated view of Gordon.
Miami's free agent signing now points the needle back towards contention, and to some degree, that is not an unreasonable move. Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs said today that the Marlins were in a weird state with regards to contention versus rebuilding.
Two clubs that would fit in the AL picture, two clubs that could end up going either way depending on certain breaks. One of them is the Diamondbacks, who have spent the offseason trying to beef up. And then there are the Marlins, who have too many good players to be bad, but too little depth and reliability to be great. The Marlins want to be a contender, though. Believe it or not, Jeffrey Loria hates to lose.
The Marlins do indeed have talent. They have a strong trio of outfielders in Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Ozuna. They have a solid defensive infield, including a potential All-Star level performer in Dee Gordon, depending on how you see him. They also have an ace in Jose Fernandez.
And even with the addition of Chen, the team still is not a true playoff contender.
About three weeks ago, I was surprised to note just how close to .500 the Marlins were expected to be. Even with the terribly flawed rotation and the potential downsides of the entire infield, Miami was still projected to win about 80 games with the unimproved roster. The Fish ranked eighth in the National League and 19th overall at the time. They were a good deal behind the tier of real contenders, but like Sullivan said, they were not in the obvious group of rebuilding teams either. At the time, this just looked like the Marlins being directionless and lost, but clearly now the Fish are angling towards trying to contend. They are just simply more than one decent pitcher away.
Chen was projected for 2.6 wins next season by FanGraphs. Once the other projection systems start rolling in, we will have a better sense of where Chen rates, but "above average" fits the description for the new $80 million man. As we mentioned before, this is about a one-win upgrade for the Marlins over a guy like Phelps or some combination of the team's weaker prospect pool pitching in the fifth rotation spot. That means that, with the addition, Miami goes up to an expected win total of 81 games. That is an expected .500 record, which is certainly nothing to scoff at, but also nothing to write home about.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are the next best team in the league, and they currently have 39.5 projected FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement as a team, about six more wins than the Marlins. Pittsburgh's projected 87-win total is just the type of number that could get a team to contention, and that is especially true in the more polarized National League with clear contenders and rebuilders. Earlier this year, when we discussed the Marlins' possible direction, we said that if Miami wanted to go all-out for 2016, it would need to make bigger signings than a mid-tier player.
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.
Let's use David Price as an example. Price is expected to be a five-win pitcher next season according to Steamer and FanGraphs. Adding a five-win starter to this team's roster would be a 3.5-win upgrade for the Marlins, and it would have pushed them up to almost 85 expected wins on the season. At that point, if Ozuna or Gordon hit All-Star-like strides and everyone remains healthy, you are suddenly looking at a playoff-caliber team. Add another starting pitcher and you are looking at an even closer number.
Alas, the Marlins never had that sort of money to spend wildly on someone like Price, so the team settled for the mid-tier pitching market, guys who would only be a win or so better than their current options. That means that, even with the addition, the Marlins are still pretty far away from contending. The team could still use four more wins until they are closer to contention, and with limited options to acquire them, this roster still appears to be on the far fringes rather than in the heat of the battle.