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Grading the 2020-21 Marlins offseason

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The Marlins were efficient with their offseason moves, but a lack of ambition leaves them ill-equipped to make it back to the playoffs in 2021.

MLB: Kim Ng at Marlins Park Miami Marlins-Handout Photo

There’s nothing novel about the “grading the offseason” exercise, but I have taken it to an extreme that will hopefully resonate with you. To me, the Indians claiming outfielder Harold Ramirez on Wednesday marked the end of the 2020-21 Miami Marlins offseason. How well did they do? Let’s use an 100-point scale.

If a team, hypothetically, was able to acquire all the right players at appropriate prices while retaining all of its key contributors from the previous year, that alone should earn a passing grade. My points system was designed with that in mind. (SPOILER ALERT: the Marlins were not perfect.) However, there are many other additional factors that must be considered to assess the competence of the organization.

On October 8, 2020, the Braves defeated the Marlins in Game 3 of the National League Division Series to eliminate them from championship contention. Everything that transpired from that point onward was incorporated into my grading process.


Handling of Club-Controlled Players

Grade: 9 points (out of 10)

Following the World Series, Brian Moran, Mike Morin, Johan Quezada, Josh A. Smith, Drew Steckenrider and Pat Venditte were squeezed off the Marlins 40-man roster. These relievers had very little involvement in the 2020 season with the exception of Smith, who was mediocre at best. Aside from Quezada, all of them had recently suffered injuries, too.

The Marlins held 2021 club options for two key veteran players: outfielder Starling Marte and right-hander Brandon Kintzler.

MLB: SEP 22 Marlins at Braves Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

They exercised Marte’s $12.5M option (rather than pay the $1M buyout). A well-rounded offensive player who can still handle center field, he is an excellent fit for the current roster and clubhouse. Besides, it would’ve been an inefficient use of resources to let him walk so soon after trading three pitchers to the Diamondbacks to acquire him in the first place. It is likely that he could have commanded a bigger pay day in free agency.

Meanwhile, they declined Kintzler’s $4M option (instead paid $250k buyout). Although hugely valuable during the 2020 season, the 36-year-old was understandably a lower priority for the Fish due to his limited role and concerning underlying performance data. They anticipated (correctly) that he would still be available at a later stage of the offseason and at a lower price point. We’ll circle back to Kintzler further down in this piece.

Arbitration-eligible players Jesús Aguilar, Jorge Alfaro, Brian Anderson, Richard Bleier, Adam Cimber, Garrett Cooper and Yimi García settled with the Marlins on one-year deals to avoid hearings. At $4.35M, Aguilar was the most expensive of the bunch, but Miami’s decision to retain him was justified coming off an impactful, bounce-back campaign. Moreover, the club needed insurance in the event that the universal designated hitter rule carried over to 2021 (as of this writing, it won’t). Fellow arb-eligibles Ryne Stanek and José Ureña were cut loose. Despite their tantalizing pure stuff, they were weak links on the pitching staff. Prototypical change-of-scenery candidates.

Right-hander Robert Dugger and left-hander Stephen Tarpley were claimed off waivers by the Mariners and Mets, respectively. Tarpley’s departure invited some scrutiny from me considering that the Marlins traded prospect James Nelson and cash considerations to get him just the year prior, plus he still had two minor league options remaining. Also, moving on from both Ureña and Dugger will shift the spot starter responsibilities to neophytes in 2021.

You can listen to my expanded thoughts on Harold Ramirez in podcast form. In a vacuum, losing one of their most productive young hitters via waiver claim is disappointing, only seven months removed from having him bat cleanup in their Opening Day lineup. However, he was a poor fit for the Marlins roster in the absence of a universal designated hitter rule and had nothing to gain from spending this upcoming season in the minor leagues.

There have been no reports yet suggesting that the Marlins will sign any players to multi-year contract extensions. Isn’t it a contradiction for the front office to repeatedly boast about their potential but take no steps to lock them up? Successful MLB franchises—especially small-market ones—are proactive in extending key contributors before they reach their peaks (which inflates their asking price in negotiations). I will reserve judgement because many such deals traditionally get finalized around Opening Day. Still time for the Marlins to #PayBA while they still have a window to feasibly do so.

MLB/MiLB Free Agency

Risk Management: 10 points (out of 10)

Upside/Marketability: 3 points (out of 10)

Appropriate Fit: 3 points (out of 5)

Grade: 16 points (out of 25)

Anthony Bass became the first pitcher to receive a multi-year free agent deal from the Marlins since new ownership arrived. And yet, it was constructed in a way that could prove to be a massive bargain for the team. The hard-throwing right-hander is guaranteed $5M with the potential to max out at $8.5M only if Miami picks up his 2023 option and if he serves as a steady closer (gets credited with games finished) over the next two seasons.

Bass is coming off a good 2020 campaign with the Blue Jays and could conceivably miss more bats by making frequent use of his splitter. Having him fill Kintzler’s shoes is fine, though having them join forces would’ve been even better. The Marlins reportedly allowed $1M to change those plans when the rival Phillies targeted Kintzler for themselves. That was deflating. Replicating his production is easier than finding another effective mentor to assist younger pitchers on the staff.

Aside from Kintzler, the Marlins didn’t put up much of a fight to bring back Brad Boxberger (signed with Brewers), Matt Joyce ( Phillies), Nick Vincent (Rangers) or other familiar faces from the ‘20 postseason run.

Adam Duvall ought to boost the corner outfield production so long as the Marlins don’t put too much responsibility on his plate. Assuming a Corey Dickerson resurgence of some kind, Duvall will be mainly deployed in right where this team has lacked continuity since the rebuild began. He has the innate ability to barrel the baseball, ensuring plenty of home runs despite playing half his games at Marlins Park and adjusting to MLB’s plans to slightly deaden the ball in 2021.

I’m a big fan of Duvall’s contract structure—$2M salary this year plus $7M mutual option for 2022 ($3M buyout). There is a small but not insignificant chance that he does well and decides to opt in rather than test the market again at age 33. That being said, it’s unclear who the Marlins were bidding against for his services, or why they weren’t more aggressively going after younger free agents at that position like Eddie Rosario or Joc Pederson for an extra couple million bucks. Duvall’s on-base issues (.290 OBP with Braves, .293 OBP in MLB career) severely limit his ceiling.

Journeyman left-hander Ross Detwiler was the Marlins’ other major league signing. On the surface, his $850k deal may seem innocuous. However, the supply of relievers greatly outweighed the demand this winter. He should have been attainable as a non-roster invitee to spring training. By prematurely guaranteeing Detwiler a spot, that made the 40-man roster unnecessarily difficult to manage.

Miami’s free agent NRIs include Anthony Bender, Chris Chinea, Alexander Guillen, Sandy León, Luís Madero, Luis Marté, Shawn Morimando and Zach Thompson. Very uninspiring group, though I’m somewhat hopeful about Guillen.

I give the Marlins credit for being efficient with their resources, and I deduct points for their lack of ambition. I can’t imagine any of these signings earning All-Star selections or bringing back meaty prospect packages as possible trade deadline bait. As alluded to earlier, it’s perplexing to see them shed innings-eaters like Ureña and Dugger but not fill the void with a serviceable veteran starter—dozens of them were available in free agency. No amount of hype coming from Kim Ng or Don Mattingly will convince me that they have sufficient depth or that Sandy Alcantara should be responsible for “leading” the rotation on and off the field so early in his career.

Trades

Risk Management: 9 points (out of 10)

Upside/Marketability: 5 points (out of 10)

Appropriate Fit: 5 points (out of 5)

Grade: 19 points (out of 25)

Right-hander Zach Pop (while part of the Orioles organization) underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019. Without a Minor League Baseball season last year, the Marlins could only do so much to gauge where he’s at in his recovery process. Enticed by his excellent pre-surgery production, they acquired Pop in December by trading a player to be named later to the Diamondbacks. That was 2 12 months ago and we’re still waiting on the name. (Perhaps the specific player is contingent on Pop making the Opening Day roster?) It’s admittedly tricky to evaluate this move with the limited information we have.

Getting submariner Adam Cimber from Cleveland for cash considerations? Okay. He does add to the diversity of release points on the pitching staff.

A disastrous showing in his four most recent pitching appearances tanked Jordan Yamamoto’s trade value as well as his standing within the Marlins organization. They were able to extract something in return from the Mets: young infielder Federico Polanco. Trading within the division, even on a small scale, is always uncomfortable. That being said, the likelihood of the Hawaiian right-hander “haunting” them in head-to-head matchups for years to come is low—too many questions about his fastball and durability.

Bolstering the bullpen with right-handers Dylan Floro (Dodgers) and John Curtiss (Rays) looks impressive on paper. Both were undeniably effective on the mound in 2020 and continued to be trusted by their respective teams during deep postseason runs. Moreover, they have plenty of club control remaining if things go well—at least three years for Floro, at least five for Curtiss—and minor league options to be used in a worst-case scenario. To get them, the Marlins relinquished the mystery box that is fifth-round draft pick RHP Kyle Hurt, sold relatively high on LHP Alex Vesia (an afterthought entering pro ball who dominated at every rung of the minors) and parted ways with 1B Evan Edwards.

More often than not, the Dodgers and Rays come out as winners in these quiet transactions. That history isn’t enough for me to penalize the Marlins, but it is worth asking why these contenders would be willing to move on from Floro and Curtiss unless they are anticipating a significant drop-off in production.

Via reporting from Craig Mish of the Miami Herald, the Marlins contemplated trading for an outfielder prior to committing to Adam Duvall. They came closest to acquiring Andrew Benintendi from the Red Sox for a package comparable to what the Royals ultimately gave up. Negotiations regarding the Orioles’ Anthony Santander never got far past the “kicking the tires” stage, per Mish. Cubs star catcher Willson Contreras was potentially available to the Fish had they bundled a handful of recent draft picks and international signings. Among those possibilities, Contreras would have been the best fit if the Marlins were prioritizing major league success in 2021, but most of their winter activity suggests that isn’t the case. They can re-evaluate him again this summer when Chicago’s asking price ought to be slightly lower (he’ll be a free agent after 2022).

You can squint and see some on-field impact coming from these new Marlins, if Pop is healthy...if Curtiss throws strikes with conviction...if Polanco develops more game power. No individual really moves the needle, though.

International Free Agency

Grade: 10 points (out of 10)

The only way for a team to flunk MLB international free agency is to not try. It is like getting an entire second draft class, except with even less financial risk. Traditionally, the IFA signing period kicks off every year on July 2, but baseball pushed that back to January 15 due to COVID-19 complications so that’s why I’ll count it as an offseason activity.

The Marlins initially had a total bonus pool of $6,431,000 and have already spent nearly all of it. SS Yiddi Cappe ($3.5M bonus) is the “first-round talent” of the class. They have signed players from five different countries—Cuba, México, Venezuela, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.

Rule 5 Draft

Grade: 5 points (out of 5)

As mentioned before, there is some trepidation whenever you covet a player that the Rays have deemed expendable (in this case, RHP Paul Campbell). However, that’s not always an indictment of the player—it could just be the Tampa Bay organization feeling confident in its ability to develop a comparable contributor, one who won’t require 40-man roster protection the way Campbell did.

During the minor league phase of the Rule 5, the Marlins obtained RHP Dylan Bice, INF Marcus Chiu and LHP Jake Fishman, only losing RHP Brett Graves to the Athletics.

Small part of the offseason overall, but Miami nailed it.

Winter Ball

Grade: 4 points (out of 5)

A variety of Marlins players benefited from their reps overseas during the 2020-21 offseason. The since-waived Harold Ramirez (Colombia) demonstrated that he has returned to form following a September hamstring injury; Lewin Díaz (Dominican Republic) got more than 100 at-bats to experiment with his new, raised-hands stance; Joe Dunand (Dominican Republic) was an all-around star, earning an invite to major league spring training after being excluded from last year’s alternate training site program; and Anthony Maldonado (Puerto Rico) checked all of the boxes you want to see from a burgeoning bullpen piece.

Joe Dunand with Leones del Escogido
Fish Stripes original GIF

However, I expected to see a better effort finding landing spots for Miami’s future starting rotation candidates after they missed out on MiLB development in 2020. Of course Sandy Alcantara and Pablo López deserved time to unwind—and Elieser Hernandez was coming off of an injury—but what about everybody else? A handful of winter ball starts at any competitive level would’ve helped with transitioning back to a semi-normal workload for this upcoming campaign.

Non-Player Activities

Front Office & Coaches: 9 points (out of 10)

Business & Community: 6 points (out of 10)

Grade: 15 points (out of 20)

MLB: Kim Ng at Marlins Park Miami Marlins-Handout Photo

Kim Ng was a grand slam hire as the new Marlins general manager—she brings unimpeachable qualifications, pre-existing familiarity with Derek Jeter, Gary Denbo and Don Mattingly and a great rapport with the media. The only available baseball executive who may have been “better” is Dave Dombrowski. He’ll be leading the Phillies front office instead. However, a Dombrowski reunion was never a real possibility. His team-building strategy is predicated on spending the kind of money that Marlins ownership isn’t willing to put into the budget, plus he even rebuffed the Phillies multiple times before accepting the position. How motivated is he at this stage of his career? There is no such concern with Ng.

Marlins bench coach/offensive coordinator James Rowson interviewed for the Red Sox managerial opening in October, but ultimately stayed put. That’s a sigh of relief—I consider Rowson to be an ideal Mattingly successor in the near future. Miami’s major league staff has a ton of continuity with the exception of Keith Johnson replacing Billy Hatcher at first base.

My only point deduction in this subcategory comes from the disrespectful treatment of president of baseball operations Michael Hill. The Marlins’ plan to dismiss him at the end of his contract was complicated by the fact that, uh...he was actually good at his job? They offered Hill a substantial pay cut to stick around, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, despite his role in their 2020 postseason berth. There is simply no way that the front office is better off without his experience and brainpower. This didn’t need to be a Hill vs. Ng situation: they could’ve worked together.

Kudos to the Fish and their Miami Marlins Foundation for being so philanthropic. Initiatives that they launched before and during the COVID-19 crisis continued straight through the offseason. The investment that they have made in the surrounding community cannot be taken for granted.

Marlins Communications

The franchise moved more rapidly than most to finalize detailed health and safety measures to accommodate in-person attendance at Marlins Park for the 2021 season. On the other hand, they came up short in terms of organizing virtually activities to keep fans engaged. There were weeks-long stretches of the offseason where it was easy for the general public to forget that the Marlins even existed. Fish Stripes had to pick up the slack for them!

And then there is the television deal fiasco. Yes, you will be able to watch every Marlins regular season on FOX Sports Florida. But the terms of the deal still haven’t been confirmed, as of this writing. By slow-playing the negotiations, it’s unlikely that any of the club’s spring training games will be aired on FS Florida. Coming off an exciting 2020 season and entering this new year with the same core intact, the Marlins have bungled a golden opportunity to market their product.


Final Grade: 78 out of 100

The 2020-21 Marlins offseason gets a C+ from me, buoyed by the Ng hire and smart moves on the margins. Their aspirations of “sustainable winning” are still realistic. That window could open as soon as 2022 with the right combination of homegrown player breakouts and complementary veteran acquisitions.

The Marlins did just enough to avoid punting on 2021, but not nearly enough to keep pace with the rest of the National League East division. Absolutely everything must go well for them to make it back to October. This lack of upside will temper the fanbase’s enthusiasm.

Baseball Prospectus

Now, it’s your turn to grade it. Please comment below. Limit your response to less than 3,000 words.