Best Marlins players ever?

I just found this recently, but a couple months back Sky Kalkman of BtB put up a fun list exercise involving finding your team’s best position players of all time. Here are the directions:

1. Jot down 25 or so names that you think might be in the top 10. Don’t skimp on slick fielders, 2B/SS/CA, or people born before you. For some help, generate a list of the top OPS+ in franchise history using B-Ref’s PI tool.

2. Look up those 25ish players in Sean Smith’s historical WAR database. Why use this source? Because Sean accounts for basically all significant aspects of a player’s context-neutral on-field production: hitting, baserunning, GIDPs, range, position, turning DPs, catcher defense, etc.

3. Add up their WAR for all seasons as a member of your team. These players did the most to help your team win games since 1955.

4. Add up the WAR of their best five consecutive seasons for your team and divide by five. This is one way find the average production of a player’s peak.

5. Add up the WAR of their best three season for your team and divide by three. This is another way to find the average production of a player at his peak.

Simple enough I thought. So I did it for the Marlins, using ten names (it would get really difficult to find 25 guys who have played at least three season on the Marlins). To determine the names, I started by thinking of the greatest players qualitatively to put on a Marlins jersey, aside from the one-year rentals of 1997 (Moises Alou, you would have been great for many years down here). For position players, I think two players clearly came to mind: Miguel Cabrera and Gary Sheffield.  Of all the Marlins that have worn the jersey in the team’s 17 seasons, including this one, we’ve been witness to two players who have been Hall of Fame hitters. Sheff will go down as one of the most prolific hitters of the last two decades, and Cabrera undoubtedly this decade and the next.

The next thing I did was to determine a set of Marlins hitters who were quality players that hung around with the team for a long period of time. Six Marlins came to mind in terms of longevity in the black and teal: Charles Johnson, Derek Lee, Luis Castillo, Mike Lowell, Cliff Floyd (my favorite all-time Marlin), and Mr. Marlin himself, Jeff Conine. All six of these men donned the uniform for six-plus seasons, with Castillo the longest reigning Marlin ever with 10 seasons and 1114 games with the Marlins.

Finally, I took a look at two players who are on the current squad, the two most valuable position players for the 2006-present Marlins configuration. Those two would of course be Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla. These two have three All-Star appearances between them, with another starting nod coming this season for Hanley. Of course, we all know we’re witnessing the blossoming of a player who will soon challenge Albert Pujols for the best offensive player in the game in Ramirez, and Uggla is no slouch with the bat either, though admittedly their talent levels are worlds apart.

With that in mind, let’s take a look. Here are the WAR totals for each player, in descending order. For Hanley and Uggla, this season’s WAR totals taken from FanGraphs were included; for all other seasons Rally’s historical WAR database was used. These numbers seem pretty different, particularly involving differences between UZR from FanGraphs and Total Zone Rating from Rally’s database, but for this half-season I’m all right with that. Next to those totals are the approximate seasons they’ve played for the Marlins, including a few partial seasons.

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With the advent of defensive metrics, I think we can now see how much of an effect Miguel Cabrera’s defense had on his value to the team. It’s hard to argue Cabrera’s offensive seasons after his rookie season haven’t met or surpassed Hanley’s, but Miggie’s poor defense in the outfield and at third base really damaged his value; in his five years in Florida he totaled 49 runs below average by Total Zone Rating. In contrast, Hanley has shown steady improvement at a more premium defensive position, making up for the batting runs Cabrera has over Hanley. It is extremely surprising to see that the best hitter the Marlins have ever seen still was outdone by little more than half the seasons of Ramirez. Sheffield suffered from the same thing. Playing a poor corner outfield position deflated a lot of his offensive value. He was able to play three solid, full seasons with the Marlins and, aside from his monster 1996, he was unable to put up WAR’s over 3.0 because his defense often took away a win and his positional adjustment took almost another one away.

The other player to make over 20 wins in his Marlins career was Luis Castillo, and this should be of no surprise as Castillo has played the longest with the Marlins. I always knew him as a good defender at second base, and for the Marlins Castillo totaled 27 runs above average by TZR.  Lowell and Floyd came off as similar in value for their time here, both on excellent bats and solid gloves. I was surprised to see Niner play so well in both the field and plate; he was a surprisingly better left fielder than I expected and was always slightly below league average each year. CJ derived most of his value from his glove, as he was a Gold Glove catcher for many years in Florida.

Derek Lee’s value really surprised me, as I felt after he left Florida that he was perenially underrated on the Marlins team. However, he’s been coasting on a good defensive reputation, one that he never really matched. Career-wise, he’s put up four runs below average at first base despite being a three-time Gold Glover. Also, due to his position at first base, while he was one of the Marlins’ best hitters each year, his value was little more than two or so WAR, showing you why players who play first base should feel the most pressure to perform offensively.

Let’s take a look at the best three-year peak WAR/season for each of these ten men.

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There’s not much change in the order of the se numbers and that of the career totals. Floyd was better in his peak, during a time when he wasn’t injured, than Lowell’s best three seasons with the Fish. Floyd’s three year peak spanned his career year in 2001, posting a career high 6.5 WAR, and also included a partial season with the Marlins in 2002, during which he was traded twice (first to Montreal, then to Boston). Gary Sheffield’s peak season included his huge 1996 along with two injury-shortened but still decently productive years.

But, you might think some of the Marlins’ pitchers of the past outdid these guys. Well let’s include five pitchers who have spent the most time here in Florida, including one closer: Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis, Brad Penny, A.J. Burnett, and Robb Nen. The four starters are the men who logged the most innings in a Marlins uniform, while Nen was the man who closed the most games for the Marlins. Let’s see how they ranked with the Marlins’ position players.

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Not a lot of surprises here. Beckett never posted more than 26 starts in any season in a Marlins uniform, which was the primary reason why he was not able to put up a lot of value for his time here. Meanwhile, Willis was a workhorse who was never hurt and logged over 200 innings a season in his time here, and that, combined with his Cy Young-caliber 2004 season, made him one of the most valuable Marlins of all time. Burnett, when healthy, was also a solid innings eater and was able to get value in that fashion. Finally, in Robb Nen’s performance, you can see how little relievers contribute compared to capable starters. When you see people arguing about the worth of having a great closer and setup guy (the Joba Chamberlain argument was a great example), note that starters log more innings and are far more involved in the winning process for teams than relievers, even high-leverage relievers like closers.

Finally, let’s take a look at the peak numbers.

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Not surprising here. D-Train’s ridiculous 2004 contributed to an amazing first three seasons, before control issues brought him down as a pitcher. At his peak, he stands tied with Mike Lowell for fifth best Marlin ever, which is pretty cool and about where most people would place him. The remaining starters where below 3 WAR per peak season, with Josh Beckett putting up the most disappointing numbers. If only he had been healthy more throughout his Marlins career, he would have been one of the greats in Marlins history.

Even in such a short time, Marlins fans were witness to some amazing baseball and some amazing baseball players. Even through the difficult times, after so many defections and fire sales, Marlins fans can rejoice that, for the time these players were here, they managed to put up some great numbers. In maybe less than ten years, Gary Sheffield will head to the Hall of Fame and maybe consider wearing the hat of the only team he’s ever won a World Series with. Maybe Miggie will consider donning a Marlins cap for his HoF entrance. And most certainly, if we can keep Hanley here and happy, when he enters the Hall some twenty to twenty five years from now, he will put a Marlins cap on proudly. At the very least, we can say we saw some of the best players in their best times, and the other guys weren’t too shabby either.

Editor’s Note: I know I misspelled D-Lee’s name. Sorry, Derrek, if you’re reading. I was in a rush.

Tags: Brad Penny Charles Johnson Cliff Floyd Dan Uggla Derrek Lee Dontrelle Willis Gary Sheffield Hanley Ramirez Jeff Conine Josh Beckett Luis Castillo Miami Marlins Miguel Cabrera Mike Lowell Robb Nen Sky Kalkman

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