The Miami Marlins may have problems in the future beyond their core group of strong talent. The team has locked up Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Dee Gordon each to extensions lasting into the 2020 season. It also has Marcell Ozuna and Jose Fernandez in for at least three more years each including this season. However, the talent surrounding these players is concerning, especially at the suddenly bereft starting pitching position. Outside of these players, only one young, talented big-leaguer in J.T. Realmuto is slated to be cheap and under team control as a sure-fire contributor for several more years. The team has very little backup going forward, and if the club does not reload its talent base, it may struggle to support a competitive roster.
Two years ago, there was a similar feeling with the Atlanta Braves organization. The Braves just went 79-83 with a roster including strong names like Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran, and Andrelton Simmons. At the same time, two of those players were slated to be free agents fairly soon, and there was a decent question as to whether that core could get Atlanta over the hump and whether they should even re-sign guys like Heyward or Upton long-term. At the same time, the organization had suffered some down times in the farm system department; SB Nation's Minor League Ball ranked their organization as 26th in baseball heading into the 2014 season.
The Braves often consider themselves a smaller-market organization that has to run a tight financial ship to be successful. Whether that is true or not is debatable, but Atlanta made the decision after the 2014 season to scrap an attempt at immediate contention and play for the future. With their 2017 debut in a new stadum in Cobb County coming, the team looked to rebuild its roster for that coming season. Starting at the end of the 2014 campaign, they traded several names under shorter team control times in order to rebuild their roster, keeping only the most necessary of players around for the long term. They dealt Upton and Heyward in the final year of their respective contracts and sent Kimbrel packing before the season as well. This offseason, they traded Simmons and Shelby Miller, whom they acquired for Heyward. They used this to rebuild their farm system, and it seems to be working; John Sickels of Minor League Ball ranked their farm 12th in the league before 2015, and Keith Law of ESPN just rated them the best farm system in baseball now.
The Marlins are not in a terribly different predicament. They have a solid group of young players whom they would keep, but another group of guys who could be considered either core talent or possibly trade bait under decent team control. Their farm system is distinctly lacking in talent, as they just ranked 29th among all organizations according to Law. The team is not obviously in contention, though they are perhaps a few wins away from being realistic contenders. They are even more frugal than the Braves. What if, instead of going out and signing Wei-Yin Chen to a free agent deal to bolster this year's chances, the Marlins instead went the seller's route and traded the guys they thought were not core members of the roster?
The Theoretical Plan
This plan has been discussed before here on Fish Stripes as one of three options for Miami heading into this offseason. Essentially, the Marlins would have to choose its core set of players, keep all of its affordable young talent, and trade several of their more veteran names in order to rebuild their farm system. The plan makes sense on several levels.
- The Fish are not sure-fire contenders. Per FanGraphs Depth Charts, they are projected to be three wins behind the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, and that is with the benefit of the NL Central's more difficult schedule. The Marlins are expected to be, in terms of true talent, about six wins worse than those two teams. The gap may be difficult to bridge.
- This is only for this upcoming season. The Marlins have a lot of questions to face in 2017, including continued issues at starting pitching and replacing Martin Prado and potentially Marcell Ozuna, who is in the doghouse with the organization.
- The club has very little minor league talent ready to step in as guaranteed contributors. The team's extreme lack of farm depth due to recent trades and events has hampered its future potential reinforcements.
This plan replenishes the farm system without giving up the core talent that the Marlins will need to succeed. Those are the players who are team-controlled and either are stars or have star potential. Realistically for Miami, there are only two players, Christian Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton, who could be considered in this category. With Jose Fernandez looking for a huge free agent deal that Miami is unwilling to sign, the Fish have to know that they will not be able to retain him beyond 2018, leaving him out of this core group.
The remaining players can be dealt over the next year or two, much like the Atlanta Braves did. The club correctly identified Freeman as someone not to be dealt. and it appears that the Braves are at least willing to hold onto Teheran as well. However, for many of the other players, the team identified them as expendable, and most of those choices were correct. The Braves got great returns for each of them, snagging a huge set of prospects and some Major League-ready talent away from desperate clubs like the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Braves also wisely used some of their money to buy up prospect talent, something the Marlins could learn to do as well. Rather than spend on current talent, Atlanta essentially bought pitching prospect Touki Toussant from the Diamondbacks for Bronson Arroyo's salary. Miami has often afforded teams the opposite opportunity, but relieving the team's salary crunch with trades might allow them to save a desperate team some money by taking their salary burden in exchange for talent.
In the short-term, the Braves are expected to see setbacks, and Miami would expect the same situation. Losing guys like Dee Gordon, Marcell Ozuna, Adeiny Hechavarria, Martin Prado, and A.J, Ramos over the next few seasons would take out a lot of significant talent, and not every trade can bring back guys who are ready to contribute immediately. But even the Braves were able to squeeze teams for higher-minors talent, and Miami once picked up at least a few ready-to-contribute names in their last set of large trades. A mix of higher- and lower-minors talent would be critical for the return.
The important thing to recognize is that this is a long-term play. The Marlins would also have to have the patience to recognize how such a move would work and stick to a long-term solution. The team was not able to do that after 2012, as one surprising 2014 season led to the club selling out the mediocre farm for immediate returns in 2015 that did not pan out as expected, leaving the team in its current state. Could the Marlins realistically be expected to stick to this kind of long-term thinking if they were not able to do it just recently?
The allure of "going for it" is especially prevalent here with the Fish particularly because of the presence of Stanton. Owner Jeffrey Loria just committed a large sum of money to locking up Stanton long-term, and he might be concerned about paying Stanton if the team were to suffer one or two losing campaigns. He might abandon the plan for a more competitive option out of impatience, which would hurt the efforts they made.
In addition, the team's time with Stanton is not long for this world. This next set of years are the cheapest for Stanton under his current 13-year, $325 million contract. After his sixth season, he has an opt-out clause which allows him to re-enter free agency and earn another major contract, an option that he seems very likely to take. Realistically, the Marlins probably only have five more years of access to Stanton, and wasting the most affordable of those years on rebuilding campaigns may not be the best use of their time. The club may feel it is a better risk to bet on the current roster rather than gamble on a rebuild triggering better fortunes in three years, when Stanton will once again be close to potentially leaving.
Ultimately, the Marlins appear to be opting away from this plan, but do not underestimate Jeffrey Loria's ability to turn on a whim. Another disappointing season and you could see Fernandez, Gordon, and the others heading out the door if 2016 ends up a failure. The question is whether this front office and ownership is committed enough to stay the course on a plan like the Braves'.