If you know one thing about the Marlins, you probably know Giancarlo Stanton. He has huge biceps, an incredible contract, and unlimited power. You’ve seen both the towering homers and the line drives that appear to still be rising as they leave the game’s most spacious parks. If you know two things about the Marlins, you probably know Jose Fernandez, the absolute phenom with a fastball that sizzles and a curve that should be illegal. Since integration, he’s the starting pitcher with the lowest ERA, ERA-, and FIP (minimum 250 innings) for a career. And if you know three things about the Marlins, it’s that Jeffrey Loria is one of the game’s most reviled owners, vacillating between saving and spending when it suits him, bilking taxpayers out of stadium cash, and alienating his franchise-defining players every few months. (The fourth thing you may or may not know about this team is that they’ve hired Barry Bonds to be the hitting coach. Don’t worry too much about this one, it should only last about a month or two.)
So here’s the fifth thing to know about the Marlins–the ugly truth behind one of baseball’s least effective franchises: They are incapable of surrounding their two superstars with enough talent to field a .500 team. Despite not formally “rebuilding,” despite occasionally shelling out big bucks for mid-tier free agents, this is a team without talent aside from a couple of high-test talents and a handful of supporting pieces. And that’s a criminal waste of the primes of two of the game’s finest stars.
A competitive baseball team needs depth and breadth, two things that this Marlins roster just doesn’t have. They have seven players total–on the major or minor league level–that PECOTA projects for more than a win. Stanton, Fernandez, and Dee Gordon are on that list, and they’re joined by new addition Wei-Yin Chen (1.9 WARP), left fielder Christian Yelich (3.3 WARP), third baseman Martin Prado (1.1 WARP), and shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria (1.0 WARP). Everyone else on this roster is within a win of replacement level, or below. Would you believe that the two “rebuilding” teams in the division have more players projected to add 1.0+ WARP than the Marlins? They do: both the Braves (nine players) and the Phillies (eight players) seem to have a higher number of quality players.
This isn’t a rebuilding team, but a “competing” one, at least in management’s eyes. But since their last World Series run back in 2003, the Marlins haven’t been particularly competitive, and they’ve continued to vacillate between short-term buildups and longer-term teardowns. For the last six seasons, they've ducked below .500 each year, and–most notably–their future outlook isn’t any rosier than it was at any point over the past decade. This is a franchise that has struggled to find an identity beyond “mean old Jeffrey Loria’s plaything” or “that irrationally cheap team.” Potential stars such as Marcell Ozuna and Logan Morrison have seen their development slow, and the franchise’s recent drafts have produced nothing substantive of value. Several of the effective players they’ve generated have been ostracized at best or dealt away at worst. The players targeted via trade or free agency (Jarred Cosart, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Mike Morse, Ichiro Suzuki) have often proven either below average or just plain bad.
But last offseason, the Marlins finally broke their streak of making poor personnel decisions to surround their star talent. At the time, the trade to acquire Dee Gordon from the Dodgers looked puzzling, as the young infielder only had about half a season of quality performance. To get him, the Marlins sloughed off four quality potential regulars: the top starting pitching prospect (Andrew Heaney), a potential late-inning bullpen arm (Chris Hatcher), and two rising young middle infielders who perhaps could replicate Gordon’s value on the cheap (Enrique Hernandez and Austin Barnes). Many analytically minded analysts mocked the Marlins for buying into Gordon’s two good months at the start of 2014 and paying top dollar for an average-ish regular.
Of course, we were all forced to re-evaluate what we had thought of Gordon. He made a dramatic improvement as a defensive second baseman … well, by every metric other than our FRAA number (-0.6 FRAA). He won a Gold Glove award, made big strides according to Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved, and earned plaudits from pundits and coaches. Beyond that, he put on the same sort of offensive show that he did last year: singles and stolen bases by the bucketful, with few walks (just a 3.8 percent walk rate) or displays of power. But being able to pull that trick for a second straight year gives me faith that he can emulate an above-average offensive contributor going forward. His speed and defense push him to the realm of All-Star-caliber in a weak NL second baseman class.
The problem is that Dee Gordon–potential All-Star and all–isn’t enough. He’s one player, and this is a team that is not building something lasting. The Marlins don’t have the pipeline that any of their divisional “rivals” do, from the good teams in Washington and Queens to the builders in Philly and Atlanta. According to the BP Top 10 for the Marlins this year, here’s the State of the System: “There are good systems, there are poor systems, then there’s 50 pounds of effluence, and then there’s the Marlins.” Top prospect Tyler Kolek, a former No. 2 overall pick, has looked uninspiring since being drafted. Without being able to develop quality talent to fill in the gaps, the Fish are forced to try and patch with external additions, a task that Michael Hill and the front office has a lot of trouble doing with regular success. The result is a roster unable to provide solid value outside a few positional starters and two slots in the rotation.
So that leaves the Marlins leaning oh so heavily on Stanton, Fernandez … and maybe Gordon and Yelich. It’s not a bad core, but it is an uncertain one: Stanton has ended the past two seasons on the disabled list, and had just 318 plate appearances in 2015. Fernandez will be on an innings limit in 2016, having spent much of the past year recovering from Tommy John surgery. The core is good, but they’re not the most reliable. And when the backups for Stanton and Fernandez are Ichiro Suzuki in the outfield and … hell, maybe Ichiro Suzuki in the rotation, the team drops to replacement-level performance or worse when they lose any player: star or scrub. If that’s not bad enough, Jeffrey Loria appears to be alienating Fernandez through comments to the media, making it seem unlikely that the talented righty will stick around long-term.
As much as I hate to get too down, the long-term prognosis on the Marlins isn’t great. For 2016? Not too good either. But there’s a silver lining here–two, actually. Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez are young players at the tops of their crafts. Their appearances are must-watch television, the perfect examples of the best things about baseball. There’s even a couple of bronze linings in Yelich and Gordon (and maybe Chen). But after that, there’s just a lot of dark clouds hanging over the park in sunny Miami.