The Miami Marlins signaled their desire to contend in 2016 with the signing of free agent starter Wei-Yin Chen. But the team is in a unique contention position: they are not the sellers / rebuilders at the bottom of the National League, but they do not have quite the muster that the elite seven teams in the NL have. A few difficult wins above the Marlins stand the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, New York Mets, Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Chicago Cubs, the seven contending teams in the league. These clubs are fighting for five playoff spots, and by signing Chen, the Marlins want to jump in on that race.
Kudos to the Marlins for going for it again after an injury-riddled, difficult 2015 season. Owner Jeffrey Loria did not turn his attention elsewhere, and he is attempting to at least reload the starting rotation by signing Chen to his five-year contract. But with Miami outside of the fray and limited in their spending capabilities (or so they say), the Fish do not have great options to simply add to their roster. They also lack minor league farm talent to either provide depth in case of injury or trade for better talent.
In that situation, the Marlins have to make the most of what they have, both in terms of money spent and roster spots used. This is why it was disappointing to see a team that decided to be competitive to utilize bench spots for known bad players and not invest on bench talent that could actually help the starting lineup.
With a team like this, every roster spot is valuable and a potential source of wins. This goes doubly for the Marlins, who simply do not have a lot of farm system talent to promote to provide depth. The club noticed this very problem last season, when it lost Giancarlo Stanton for the year and various starting pitchers for long stretches and were stuck playing inferior players for extended playing time.
Teams in a similarly cash-strapped situation find ways to make use of their money and roster spots. They spend either on high-risk, high-reward upside or on players who can complement the current roster. One easy way to make this happen is to platoon players in the starting lineup with bench guys. The Oakland Athletics are notorious for doing this, having found useful diamonds in the rough in guys like John Jaso, Brandon Moss, Stephen Vogt, and Jonny Gomes. They squeezed value out of these players by putting them in platoon situations and having them primarily face opposite-handed pitchers, making both their performance and their partner's performance greatly enhanced.
In fact, the Marlins once did this to great success back in 2009, when they had a platoon at catcher. John Baker was the lead catcher on the roster as a lefty, but he got regular rest against lefty starters in favor of Ronny Paulino. The tandem put up 2.4 wins as a combined unit at catcher, which was close to a league average performance and was only brought down by Baker's bad defense.
Similarly, teams have to know when to spend money on useful bench parts like platoons and when not to spend money on guys who could easily be replaced by minor league talent. If a veteran is otherwise not providing anything of note, a minor league talent could easily do the same job, and that small amount of money could be invested elsewhere. This goes not only towards bench jobs, but bullpen roles as well.
The Marlins' Failure
The Marlins failed to recognize potential to optimize their money and roster spots throughout the offseason despite learning the lessons from last year. In 2015, the team spent a roster spot on Ichiro Suzuki, who at the time at least appeared to be a reasonable backup for someone who did not figure to play a lot of innings. One Giancarlo Stanton injury and Marcell Ozuna service time manipulation later and Ichiro earned himself 438 plate appearances when he never should have received more than 250. The result was a sub-replacement year and what looked like the end of Ichiro as a useful player.
Cut to 2016 and the Marlins re-signed Ichiro to a deal worth $2 million.
The Marlins have had Jeff Mathis holding up a backup catcher spot under contract since acquiring him in 2013 in the Toronto Blue Jays deal. Since then, he has been the worst hitter in baseball among the 427 players with at least 400 plate appearances. The Fish had a chance to let Mathis go last season, but they picked up his $1.5 million player option to back up Jarrod Saltalamacchia (and late J.T. Realmuto).
This season, the Marlins actually have a high minors prospect in Tomas Telis who could replace Mathis as a backup. Miami could have saved some money, paid Telis the pre-arbitration minimum, and gotten similar production. Instead, the Fish re-signed Mathis to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million. Mathis has hit .184/.248/.282 (.234 wOBA, 43 wRC+) since 2013.
That is $3.5 million that the Marlins could have easily replaced with two players worth $1 million in total. The Fish could have easily saved $2.5 million by using younger talent instead of broken-down veterans, and that $2.5 million could have gone towards another talent.
On the opposite end, the Marlins could have gone for a more guaranteed platoon option at first base. The team did acquire lefty masher Chris Johnson on the veteran minimum, but if they had spent some of their remaining money, they could potentially have squeezed a better deal out for someone like Steve Pearce. Pearce is a slightly better career hitter versus lefties (.262/.343/.481, .356 wOBA), has better power, and can play a competent right field along with a plus first base. In addition, his good seasons have been more recent than Johnson's, making him a better bet. Miami could have invested something like $5 million to $7 million a season for Pearce and gotten a win out of him rather than settling for Johnson and hoping for the best. It would also make Justin Bour's numbers better for allowing him to face fewer left-handed pitchers.
The Marlins could have even used Telis as a platoon-like option, as the minor league catcher actually is a switch hitter. The team could provide incumbent starter J.T. Realmuto more rest strictly versus right-handed pitchers and allow the switch-hitting Telis more reps versus righties, where he will own the platoon advantage.
The good news is that Miami only had a few spots where they could maximize their bench output, but the currently assembled bench is an awkward crew. Derek Dietrich is a lefty, but he serves no purpose on the bench in a platoon setting and is actually worse as a backup to Christian Yelich in the outfield. Mathis is a meaningless veteran. Ichiro may be only a nostalgia and milestone signing at this point. Miguel Rojas seems to be only multi-faceted, useful backup player they have. After years of doing the same with guys like Wes Helms, Ross Gload, and Greg Dobbs, the Marlins appear to be nowhere closer to learning their lesson about roster optimization.