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The Marlins and going the full Royals bullpen plan

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The Marlins could opt to acquire even more relief depth to alleviate their starting pitching struggles, especially with relief pitching being cheaper at the deadline. But is that the best move for the playoffs?

MLB: All Star Game Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Marlins want to acquire a starting pitcher, and that theoretically is the right goal for them. The team has no good options at starting pitcher beyond Wei-Yin Chen and Adam Conley, and both those guys have shown warts this year. Jose Fernandez is their most consistent choice in the rotation, but he cannot pitch every game. The back of the rotation has struggled, as Tom Koehler has been what we expected of Tom Koehler all year and the fifth spot has been a rotating cast of bad performances. Theoretically, a starting pitcher would be the best option for Miami.

Except Miami has a few problems in that endeavor. For one, there are a lot of teams looking for a starting pitcher; in fact, it seems like every contender is searching for one right now. In addition, there are not many starting pitchers available on the market. The Rays have three pitchers of interest, and Rich Hill is still on the market, but after that you are looking at questionable rental sources like Jeremy Hellickson to fill in spots in your rotation. Finally, the Marlins have very little to trade, as they already pulled the trigger on rising prospect Chris Paddack to acquire Fernando Rodney and might be out of valuable trade options moving forward.

The team is at an impasse; it clearly has roster spots that need improvement but it cannot compete with teams like the Boston Red Sox or Texas Rangers on assets to trade for a starting pitcher. The likely route is that Miami either comes up empty on their search this year or picks up a low-value rental like Jeremy Hellickson on the super-cheap.

There is another way, and it is an extension of the way the team went in acquiring Rodney from the San Diego Padres. Call it the Royals plan, if you will. The Royals knew they had an injury to Greg Holland, not to mention his late-season struggles last year, to deal with, so they acquired Joakim Soria to add onto their formidable cast of Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis. They converted starters like Luke Hochevar and Chien-Ming Wang to the bullpen to add depth. Overall, their crew is the seventh-best pen in baseball according to FanGraphs. While not every addition has worked out perfectly, they have a deep bullpen to complement a struggling, middling rotation; the Royals own the 28th-ranked rotation according to FanGraphs.

It worked out the same last year for the Royals, as they had the 22nd-ranked rotation but the fifth-ranked pen, anchored by Davis, Herrera, Holland, Ryan Madson, Franklin Morales, and Joe Blanton among others. That bullpen depth helped make up for the team’s poor rotation, and it certainly ended up playing a role in them winning the World Series.

Could the Marlins do the same in acquiring another reliever?

Remember, the team added to what they felt was a strength by adding Rodney to a cast that included A.J. Ramos, David Phelps, and Kyle Barraclough. Only Ramos has the long-term track record of good success, and while adding Rodney for Paddack may have been an overpay, it was at least an addition that helped the pen. But what about adding another reliever? Presuming the Marlins plan on playing seven relievers, they already have four guys who will head the later innings already. They have another pitcher in Nick Wittgren who is quietly looking good for the team. That still leaves two potential spots open for pitchers the Marlins could use to enhance their pen and add even more depth.

Of note, Miami is in strong need of a lefty reliever, and there should be some available in the market. The BrewersWill Smith and the Rays’ Xavier Cedeno are among a few left-handed names the Marlins might be able to chase as a LOOGY option to bolster their primary group of relievers and replace Mike Dunn. The Marlins clearly do not have enough to entice the Yankees about Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller, but those are far-away options if the team is willing to give up a boatload of their mediocre prospects.

Miami could also acquire a name from the list of other right-handed players who could help with the depth on the roster. The point is that the team could play to its strength and create a pen that can work regularly more often with added depth. This way, the team would not have to depend on just Phelps or Rodney or Ramos to clear the way in the seventh through ninth innings. In addition, if any of the team’s incumbent crew begins to struggle, Miami would have built-in depth to shift the bullpen around accordingly.

The other appealing part about acquiring a reliever is that Miami’s starters would be tasked to work fewer innings overall. Adam Conley has seemingly had an issue working beyond the second time around in the order. Chen has never worked deep into games even when he was pitching up in the strike zone successfully like last year. The remainder of the rotation has always been a question. Fernandez himself will occasionally run short on games. Having a deep pen may be more beneficial to the Marlins than to the average contending team.

Finally, the market for relievers is stacked with names, and big teams are going to go after the very elite names and fill potential needs before sifting through guys like the PhilliesJeanmar Gomez, for example. The Marlins can shop at a bargain-bin location hoping for a modest upgrade or a left-hander to add to their roster while avoiding the bidding war of Chapman and Miller. It’s a buyer’s market for relievers, and that should help to decrease the costs everywhere.

The downside to this plan is that it does nothing more to the team’s odds in the playoffs, even if it adds minor assistance to the team’s chances of getting there. Just like clubs shorten their rotation in the playoffs, they would shorten their pen to their four best guys, whom the Marlins already have set out. In addition, guys like Koehler could be moved to the pen for added assistance in a five- or seven-game series. Getting that fourth effective starter would still make a significantly greater impact than finding a fifth reliever down the chain.

The looming issue of Fernandez’s innings is also a problem. The Marlins committed to not harming Fernandez and going with a planned approach to getting him into the playoffs if needed, but he may at some point need to sit. Getting a starter who can actually work in that case is even more paramount because Miami would be down an ace later in a potential run.

The team is probably still better off finding a starting pitcher, even if it is a Hellickson type, than going after another reliever unless that player is an elite name. The cost savings in a trade just are not worth the lack of upgrade.