Since I will be leaving the Fish Stripes website for at the very least an extended period of time, I wanted to get my final thoughts out on the Miami Marlins before they embarked on a difficult journey in 2017 and beyond. The next few years will be a trying time for the Marlins for many reasons, so I wanted to address some of those trying points to see if there is anything Miami can do going forward to work on these problems.
1) Time to contention around the Marlins’ core
The Marlins have two core star players in Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich. Stanton, however, is coming off of his career-worst season and yet another season-ending injury essentially, and he is still on the hook for the rest of his 13-year, $325 million extension if he wants to be. At the same time, if he plays well, the Marlins will only have him around until 2020, after which he has the option to opt out and sign another gigantic contract if he is capable of doing so. The opt-out was always going to be a negative proposition for the Marlins, but after the 2016 season, the Fish have to be worried about either end of the bargain being a bad sign, as Stanton has the largest chance of being a non-star player by 2020 that he has faced all of his career.
The other star, Christian Yelich, indeed has his warts, but his contract is dirt cheap. It also only holds him until the 2021 season, so the Marlins have a definitive time table for contention and it would seem as though they have no clear plan towards getting to that point. The team has to rebuild its farm system after leaving it in tatters with several deals in recent years that have not panned out. Its current roster is decent, but not at the level of teams like the Nationals, and with up-and-coming farm-focused clubs like the Phillies and Braves around, the time for the Marlins to build may be limited.
The hard stop is probably around 2021, when Yelich’s team-friendly deal is done and a new, more market-priced deal will be required. Until then, the club has to find the resources to either rebuild this farm system or stay in contention year-to-year with the current group. The good news is that it does have a few supplementary names like J.T. Realmuto and Adam Conley among cost-controlled young supporting cast players. However, its investments thus far in players like Dee Gordon and Wei-Yin Chen have not panned out, and the team cannot afford so many market dollars on free agents or players who do not meet expectations. Building on the cheap around this core may prove a challenge without more prospect talent.
2) Recovering after Jose Fernandez’s death
None of us wanted to talk about the implications of Jose Fernandez’s unfortunate passing from a baseball standpoint, and it probably is not yet the time to discuss it now. But like it or not, this is a huge problem for the Marlins from a personnel standpoint. Fernandez was a wonderful person and great teammate, but in business terms, he was a valuable player and a potential trade chip to reinvigorate the team’s minor league system and roster. It was very likely that Fernandez only had one more season left before Miami was forced to deal him, as finding a long-term contract would have been a challenge. However, either situation would have at least helped the Marlins; the team would be either with an elite ace starter or with a windfall of talent via trade. However, with Fernandez passing away, the team is left with neither.
3) Building a starting rotation
The Marlins have at least felt like they have found the template on their position players. Stanton and Yelich form the core, they found one young contributor in Realmuto, and Gordon and Martin Prado are signed to reasonable contracts for the time being. The problem lies on the rotation side, where everyone has question marks. Chen needs to recover after a rough first season in Miami. Conley has been decent but the Fish would probably like a step up from their only remaining pitching prospect from an era of starters that seems long past. David Phelps provided five great starts to make it seem like he may be an answer to the team’s problems. Overall, though, the club is lacking in options and has none in the farm available.
4) Finding the right developmental-competitive balance
The team tried trading its moderate farm system depth away in the last three years and that has led it nowhere. Players like Colin Moran, Josh Naylor, Andrew Heaney, Austin Barnes, Chris Paddack, and Anthony DeSclafani were sent away to acquire shorter-term fixes, but none of those short-term moves have worked and they have left Miami with no talent in the minors. Three of the team’s four last first round picks are on other baseball clubs as a result. Miami needs to come up with a plan on how it will balance the developmental aspect of the team and remain competitive. For some clubs, it is easy because they can afford to make free agent moves to supplement their roster rather than being forced to make trades. For Miami, they may have to opt to rebuild the farm in the next year or two to catch the right competitive balance before 2020 and 2021 to assist the Stanton-Yelich core.
5) Rebuilding the farm system
How can they rebuild the farm though? Current talent on the team is a big part of it. The Marlins may have to find replacements for arbitration-eligible players who could bring back a return. They seemingly have already considered this with Adeiny Hechavarria, though it’s questionable whether that is a good call. They may have to consider it for guys like Dee Gordon and, perhaps most importantly, Marcell Ozuna. If any of those names can bring back talent and be replaced reasonably in the free agent market or within the team’s own roster, it would be a smart move to bolster a barren developmental system.
Of those players, Gordon seems the most expendable. Miami has Derek Dietrich, who is arbitration-eligible but still under team control for cheap, and Prado, who just re-signed a contract extension, so they could cover second and third base respectively. Ozuna, on the other hand, seems the most likely. He would probably bring back the most in a deal as the youngest available guy, and he has upside potential the other two names do not possess. Those three may play a crucial role in rebuilding that farm system.
The other important thing Miami can do is simply remain patient. They face a time crunch, but impulsive moves can leave the team wanting in the future. The impulse to contend in 2014 urged Miami to trade Moran and others for Jarred Cosart, a move that ended up failing miserably. The long-term view needs to be made when the club makes moves like this to empty their prospect coffers for marginal help now. They will have to be more careful if they plan on restocking the system to help down the line.