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Don’t get your hopes up about the 2019 No. 1 draft pick

Barring extreme injuries, it’s getting difficult to envision this team finishing with MLB’s worst record.

Philadelphia Phillies v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

As you probably heard from baseball pundits ad nauseam, the Marlins did not enter this season with any aspirations to be good. Quite the contrary—they assembled a roster specifically to be not good. And from 35,000 feet in the air, it appears that everything is going according to plan (stats updated entering May 2):

Mediocre MLB teams are incentivized to be terrible. Tanking “earns” the franchise a desirable draft position the following June. The Marlins determined that access to elite amateurs is an important step in their long-term process, which is why they didn’t mind unloading Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich and Dee Gordon during the offseason. By acquiring premium young prospects and developing them properly from inside the organization, the core of a sustainable (read: affordable) major league contender could begin to take shape.

Having the very worst 2018 record guarantees the No. 1 overall selection in the 2019 draft. As of April 17, a Marlins roster depleted by front office frugality and significant injuries was the clear favorite for that asset. According to Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections, they were more than twice as likely (36.0 percent) as the next-weakest club (Royals, 16.0 percent) to finish atop the “reverse standings.”

Courtesy of Dan Szymborski

However, a lot has changed in two-plus weeks. J.T. Realmuto can taste that elusive All-Star recognition, leading all NL catchers in OPS and pop time. Jarlin García continues to do Jarlin García things. Tazawa aside, their bullpen is deep and getting sufficient rest thanks to KKKKKKKKKKaleb Smith and a healthy, red-hot rotation. As a result, the Marlins have won six of their past seven games.

Fish Stripes original GIF

Regression is inevitable for several of these key contributors, but the “damage” has already been done. Szymborski sent Fish Stripes his updated ZiPS projections late Tuesday night, showing that Miami’s advantage dissipated as a result of their newfound success (top pick probability down to 19.8 percent). The Royals, Reds and White Sox have all emerged as serious threats.

Courtesy of Dan Szymborski

More so than at any other point in recent memory, Major League Baseball has an anti-competitive problem. Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports explored the issue in depth and quoted an anonymous general manager as saying, without hesitation, that the Marlins roster was the worst of the bunch.

Even if that evaluation was accurate (I don’t agree—the Fish have adequate pitching depth on the active roster and at the high minor league levels to deter extended losing streaks), there’s the challenge of making up ground. With the possible exception of the Twins, the weaklings trailing Miami have legitimate issues and some self-awareness. Most don’t show any intention of acquiring proven talent this season to improve their trajectory.

2018 MLB Reverse Standings (entering May 2)

Team Record (W-L%) Run Differential
Team Record (W-L%) Run Differential
Reds 7-23 (.233) -44
Royals 8-21 (.276) -64
Orioles 8-21 (.276) -55
White Sox 8-19 (.296) -43
Padres 11-20 (.355) -35
Twins 9-16 (.360) -39
Marlins 11-18 (.379) -46
Rangers 12-19 (.387) -39
Dodgers 12-17 (.414) 8
Tigers 12-16 (.429) -3

Movement surrounding the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline will be a critical factor in the tank-a-thon. It depends which veterans get dealt from struggling teams and also where they get dealt to.

Realmuto is an obvious impact trade chip for the Marlins. His departure would likely return talented-yet-inexperienced prospects, while also leaving a void in the major league lineup. There is not much urgency to move him, though, with two full seasons of club control remaining beyond 2018.

Starlin Castro (.310/.362/.363, 105 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR) would be widely coveted in a bygone era when batting average reigned supreme. But as a defensive liability on a meaty contract, it’s uncertain where the demand for his services would come from.

Beyond that, the age-30-something assets—Wei-Yin Chen, Martín Prado, Brad Ziegler, etc.—all come with significant injury/effectiveness questions. They should perform comfortably above replacement level (further keeping the Fish out of the tank if held through the deadline), but contenders will be seeking more upside than that on the trade market.

Bottom line: this is a scrappy, mediocre Marlins team as presently constituted, not quite the baseball abomination that most analysts predicted prior to the season. That sets up a challenging summer for CEO Derek Jeter and his baseball operations staff: do you shed remaining assets and big contracts in pursuit of draft position and extra profit (risking harsh public backlash), or choose the simplicity of sticking with the status quo?