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The Miami Marlins as competitors

The Marlins are currently competitors in the National League Wild Card, and there is a decent chance that there may still be upside available to them.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Marlins are tied with the New York Mets for the second Wild Card spot in the National League.

Tell me whether you expected something like that 70 games into the season.

The truth is that the Marlins were a halfway-decent team heading into this year, a part of the nebulous middle tier of the National League. The fact that they stand close to the contention spot among the better squads is not wholly unsurprising at close to the midway mark, as any decent team can overachieve for a short time period.

However, as Grant Brisbee of SB Nation pointed out yesterday, the Marlins are not some overachieving squad of guys playing way over their heads.

If the team is being carried by Jeff Mathis, say, because he’s on pace for a 30-30 season, you would be right to be a little skeptical. There are certainly telltale signs when a team’s record is more pyrite than gold,

Other than that, everyone makes sense. [Jose Fernandez] is an ace because of course he is. [Marcell Ozuna] and [Christian Yelich] are former top prospects who are emerging from the prospect chrysalis. The bullpen is a strength. Martin Prado is a solid contributor, and Justin Bour’s power didn’t go away. The rotation beyond Fernandez has been a little shaky, doing just a little worse than expected, no flukes there.

The positive performances for the Marlins are still not that far over their heads. Jose Fernandez is playing at an ace level because he was expected to be an ace. Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich are just 25 and 24 years old, so growth from either player would not be surprising, and both are doing in somewhat repeatable fashions. A leap to stardom was always a possibility. A glance at the Marlins’ list of position players shows no positive performances that appear to be way out of line. Even with expectations to have regression in Yelich, Ozuna, and Derek Dietrich along with a known likely decrease in play from Martin Prado, no players’ batting line looks completely out of step.

But as Brisbee notes, one guy on the negative side looks due for regression in the other direction.

1. Giancarlo Stanton has hit like a pitcher over his last 30 games, with a 490 OPS and 50 strikeouts in 128 plate appearances

2. Giancarlo Stanton will not hit like a pitcher all season

The logic is ironclad, don’t even try to poke holes in it. Even if you’re anticipating a little regression from Ozuna or Yelich, it’s all going to be made up when Stanton gets on a hot streak. And he’s going to get on a hot streak. He has to. He simply has to.

This is an absolute truth. The premise that Giancarlo Stanton is irrevocably pitcher-level broken is simply not possible. Even if Stanton has lost a semblance of talent like a small contingent of Marlins fans seem to believe, there is no shot that he is now, say, Adeiny Hechavarria. It is far more likely he makes a return closer to anything resembling, say, his 2013 bad season rather than an utter career collapse. Remember, there is no historical precedent for a player this good who suddenly lost his career.

That means that the Marlins are expected to lose some of the progress on their best hitters but they also have a giant upside sitting on their side in Stanton’s potential recovery. The Fish have played as well as they have, with the ninth-most position player Wins Above Replacement and the 11th-most pitcher WAR per FanGraphs, with no contribution overall from their best player. Stanton has put up zero WAR since the start of the year thanks to this awful previous month, yet the team has played well thanks to other reasonable contributions. If and when Stanton returns to anything closer to his true form, the Fish should have enough offensive firepower to overcome the overachieving other players.

The pitching side is a different story. Wei-Yin Chen is not the same starter the Marlins signed before the season, whether due to a loss in command skill or a change in his approach. Adam Conley has been solid but is having an up-and-down first full season. Jarred Cosart was so bad to start that he earned a demotion. Justin Nicolino replaced him and was sent down as well. Tom Koehler is who he is. The rotation came into the season flawed behind Fernandez and Chen, and so far it has been a bit worse than expected.

This is where the Marlins could find some room for improvement. Whether it is fixing Chen’s lost pop-ups, finding a diamond in the minor league rough that is the team’s farm system, or finding an acceptable trade target, the team could afford an upgrade in this department. However, the hitters are right where they should be, with prospects making potential star turns and one star player due for a bounce back from a month of oblivion. Oddly, there is still upside on this team despite all that has gone haywire to begin the year.