It’s generally hard to define a franchise. Franchises are full of hundreds of people, each of them with his or her own hopes, dreams, college GPAs and skills. Teams that are bad at actual baseball can hold noble philosophies, can play a vital role in their communities, can be lovable losers or compassionate antiheroes. Except the Marlins, the one team everyone knows how to feel about. In the 2016 BP Annual, Matthew Trueblood excoriated Jeffrey Loria and Associates for nearly every decision they made last year:
A series of roster moves before the 2015 season that dealt prospects for veterans, failing to understand where the team stood in its rebuilding cycle
The demotion of promising center fielder Marcell Ozuna, partially in a political battle with Jennings, who refused to bench him
The release of underperforming catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who rediscovered his bat upon arriving in Arizona
A series of roster moves before the 2015 trade deadline that seemed to improve the team’s budget rather than its farm system
The Marlins, he concluded, were the “cheapest and dumbest team in baseball,” unable to perform even the basic tasks of talent evaluation and management. This is not a cheap retrospective shot at Trueblood: Everyone outside the state of Florida agreed with him. PECOTA picked the Marlins to finish third in the NL East at 76-86, and nearly every member of the staff, in their preseason picks, said the same; this was less a vote of confidence than the recognition of the bloated corpses of the Braves and Phillies. But overall, there seemed to be little question of their fate: a bad baseball team, saved from the basement and simultaneously wasting away the prime of their few stars.
Until recently, however, the team was on pace to reverse that record, and even today clings to hopes of a Wild Card berth even as the leaves turn. The team, so recently a laughingstock, has been almost boring in 2016: sure, they still Marlin every so often, like when they rescinded a Colin Rea trade like a DVD that they watched and then returned to Target the next day. And of course they had to speculate about signing Alex Rodriguez after his semi-retirement. But there have been no dumpsters aflame, no gratuitous self-destruction. Instead? Unsettling competency.
So what happened? Taking Matthew’s points in order:
The pre-2015 trades have mainly worked in the Marlins’ favor, if only by chance. Dee Gordon, Martin Prado and David Phelps came at the cost of mainly Austin Barnes, Anthony DeSclafini and Andrew Heaney. Barnes and Heaney will probably be very good players soon, but the former is framing his guts out in Triple-A and the latter is on the Masahiro Tanaka Power-of-Positive-Thinking elbow recovery plan. DeSclafini would sure look nice in Marlins tri-color, and it’s not hard to see the credits outweigh the debits once everyone is retired, but for the most part Miami is better off in 2016 for what they did in late 2014.
Loria hired Don Mattingly almost before he was let go by the Dodgers, and shockingly, his reign in Miami so far has been peaceful and benign. Always a player’s manager, Miami’s situation has allowed him to avoid second-guessing and rest on the strength of his interpersonal relationships. Not having much of a bench to play with (and no proven closers) has probably only helped him.
Ozuna was perhaps the most obvious trade target of last winter, so of course he went untouched and entered the season as Miami’s starting center fielder. It was perhaps the best non-move of the year, as we’ll see shortly.
Saltalamacchia looked strong early in 2016 with the Tigers, but a mid-season slump and poor framing numbers have actually reduced him to sub-Mathis levels of performance. The original contract proved unwise, but moving on less so. Meanwhile, his departure has allowed J.T. Realmuto a full-time job, which he has handled with aplomb.
As for the July 2015 trades: Hard to argue on this point, in part because the net result of the Latos trades were disastrous, and in part because it’s an exercise in hypotheticals. Steve Cishek did earn the Marlins Kyle Barraclough, but otherwise the 2016 roster was unaffected and the farm system only nominally replenished.
It’s good news, kind of, but not 15-win-improvement kind of news. Throw in a 100-game season by their best player and an 80-game suspension to their starting second baseman, and it gets bleak. Then add that a lack of reinforcements at the minor-league level have led the team to create jerseys for Chris Johnson, Don Kelly, Robert Andino, Jeff Francoeur, Oswaldo Arcia, Edwin Jackson, Chris Narveson, and Jarred Cosart. (Cosart was already on the team, but man, what a disaster his career has become.) Given all this, it would have been easy to pencil in another one-star review in the Annual’s 2017 edition.
So what happened? What happened is that the Marlins have turned in one of the most bizarre seasons, as a team, as you’re ever likely to see. Enjoy this chart, comparing each member of the team (minimum 50 PA, 20 IP), against their preseason PECOTA percentile projections:
The Marlins’ performance has been, in all connotations of the word, insane.
Six of the Marlins’ top ten hitters have exceeded the wildest dreams of the prognosticators. Realmuto and Bour have performed like the blue-chip prospects they never were; the outfield is the best in baseball, Martin Prado is acting like it’s easier to hit when you know what position you’re going to play every day. And then there’s Ichiro, whose age-42 season has been nothing short of a delight. Jeff Mathis, who is still in baseball, is enjoying the greatest offensive season of his career. That about sums up everything.
On the pitching side, the Marlins have turned in a performance more Orioles than the Orioles: Jose Fernandez has completed his return by elevating to another level, while every other starter on the roster has been an unmitigated disaster, even by the low expectations set in spring. They’ve survived by assembling a fantastic bullpen despite the loss of one of baseball’s most exciting pitchers in Carter Capps.
Whenever you see this many players having unexpected seasons, the first question is always whether it’s an indication of a magical, unrepeatable season or something unquantifiable, something the Marlins foresaw that others didn’t. It’s difficult to answer, because there’s no real pattern to these breakouts. You have the semi-prospect breakouts like Realmuto (ranked third in 2015) and Bour (unranked), the contact-oriented hitters like Prado, Ichiro and Yelich riding strong BABIPs and strong peripherals that would suggest them. You have David Phelps on pace to match his career WARP leading into 2016, and Dustin McGowan physically throwing a baseball successfully. It’s so nonsensical that it’s tempting for even the analysts to throw up their hands and credit hitting coach Barry Bonds for the whole production, even the bullpen.
But the question of whether it’ll last is, in a way, not in the spirit of the team. The Marlins don’t really care about 2017 anyway.
One of the most frustrating things about the Marlins, much like their more successful and famous cousins in Baltimore, is their steadfast refusal to follow the traditional conventions of roster-building. The Marlins don’t believe in windows, don’t believe in the usual crescendos of amassing cheap, self-developed talent and supplementing with veterans when the time is right. Despite their payroll they’ve never been a particularly young team, as the following graph shows:
This year they arrived at 28.2, exactly in the middle of the pack, and recent roster moves will only increase the number. Part of the cause of this is that Loria, unlike your traditional rebuilding owners, prefers employing cheap minor league free agents and waiver wire pickups to cheap Double-A players. But another part is Loria’s willingness to acquire veterans like Saltalamacchia, Prado and Suzuki at competitive rates. Instead of flipping those veterans for prospects when the time comes, he just exchanges them for salary relief.
That philosophy, that final bullet point on the list, will be the team’s downfall. Despite their admirable consistency and competitiveness, Miami’s luck has finally run out. Stanton, Bour, Dietrich, Chen and Conley are all on the disabled list, Ichiro is wearing down, Fernandez is reaching a previously established (though easily ignored) innings cap. The Marlins were forced to swing swingman David Phelps back into the rotation, and call up the failed starters (Nicolino, Urena) that forced them to overpay for Andrew Cashner in the first place. The Mets and Pirates are in a renaissance, and the Giants have remembered how not to lose.
This leaves the Marlins’ offense in the hands of reserves like Xavier Scruggs, Miguel Rojas, Robert Andino and Chris Johnson, flotsam all. It’s either a fitting end for a franchise unwilling to play by the rules, or the beginning of the most infuriating interjection by baseball’s most infuriating franchise. For now, the Marlins continue to thrash against the hook, but they’ll still probably be skeletonized by the time the old man reaches the shore.