What Moves Should the Miami Marlins Make?

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The Miami Marlins entered 2015 with high hopes of contention, but unreasonable expectations, lack of depth, and underperformance in some areas sunk those hopes. The Marlins haven’t decided to rebuild and have expressed interest in adding middle tier starting pitching via free agency, so they appear to be pretty set on contending this upcoming season. With limited resources (in terms of money and minor league talent) and given their BaseRuns record was 75-87 (a measure of their true talent), this seems like a tall task. However, it may be possible for the Marlins to field a roster that isn’t entirely incapable of playoff contention.

First, we need to establish the resources the Marlins have at their disposal. Current salary obligations (not factoring in arbitration salaries) for 2016 total $37.95 million. Last season, the Marlins spent $69.031 in salary, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts. They anticipate 2016’s payroll to be around $80 million This is fairly solid as it gives them a little more than $40 million to cover free agents and arbitration raises. As far as the farm system goes, the Marlins are ranked in the bottom three if not worst in all of baseball. The next step is to estimate how much they have to spend in free agency, but $40 million worth of wiggle room is decent. Is it enough to turn a team that probably would’ve been .500 with a little better luck regarding health into a playoff contender? With no minor league depth to trade from, the focus is now heavily on making the perfect signings. There is always the option of trading from the big league roster, but again, the margin for error is very small. No team will ever be fully healthy, so depth may still be an issue here and addressing both top end talent and depth is rather expensive.

Now, let’s address arbitration eligible players and non-tender candidates. MLB Trade Rumors has a fantastic model for projecting arbitration salaries that is very accurate. The projected salaries are as follows:

Aaron Crow: $1.975 million

Henderson Alvarez: $4.0 million

David Phelps: $2.5 million

Dee Gordon: $5.9 million

Adeiny Hechavarria: $2.3 million

A.J. Ramos: $2.8 million

Tom Koehler: $3.9 million

Bryan Morris: $1.1 million

Carter Capps: $800K

Jose Fernandez: $2.2 million

The sum of these projected salaries is $27.475 million. This brings estimated payroll up to $65.425 million (not counting players receiving the league minimum), leaving about $15 million left to make free agent signings. The Marlins are currently looking at middle tier pitchers, who are likely to get about $15 million a year. Is there anywhere the Marlins can save some money?

Two non-tender candidates are Aaron Crow and Henderson Alvarez. Crow seems to be a pretty easy one since the bullpen is good and he missed all of last season with Tommy John surgery. Some may be wonder why the Marlins would non-tender Alvarez but, truth is, the Marlins don’t have enough money to spend $4 million on a risk like Alvarez. Every dollar counts and despite the age and upside, he still missed all but four starts with a shoulder injury. It’s a tough decision to make, but that money can go to a pitcher that’s not only less of a risk, but also more productive. Non-tendering those two brings the estimated payroll down to $59.45 million, which leaves them with about $20 million to add. Without further ado, I will get into my suggestions.

Marcell Ozuna and Jarlin Garcia for Tyson Ross

The Marlins have expressed a willingness to trade Ozuna, mostly targeting young pitching. The problem with wanting controllable talent back is you’re buying upside and, for a team that should be trying to compete right now if they’re not going to rebuild, they should be buying certainty. I like Shelby Miller, the improvements he’s made, and upside he still possesses, but I’m not convinced enough to say he’s a sure thing. The Padres are willing to trade pitching and desperately need outfield help; a controllable and talented outfielder like Ozuna would definitely pique their interest.

Tyson Ross has been an interesting case. He’s been trending up in a number of ways, seeing 3 year increases in K%, BB%, BABIP, GB%, and WAR. He strikes out nearly 10 batters every 9 innings, so the walks you can live with. The rest is rather confusing. In his career, Ross has underperformed his FIP (3.57 ERA versus 3.38 FIP), so the question is whether he has problems managing contact or has been subject to bad defense. Despite the trend of year-to-year increases in BABIP, Tyson Ross’ hard contact % has actually decreased from 32.6% in 2013 to 23.7% in 2015. Suffice to say, his full season high BABIP of .320 in 2015 is a product of baseball’s second worst defense according to UZR. Tyson Ross may be on the verge of his best season yet and pitching in front of Miami’s good infield will make a major difference in his run prevention.

Jarlin Garcia being thrown in is to even the deal a bit. He’s shown just enough where you’re intrigued by what he can do if he reaches his ceiling, but he could still settle in as a reliever and you’d be perfectly fine with that. The main piece going to San Diego is definitely Ozuna, of course. Garcia isn’t quite filler in this case, but he’s also not the reason the Padres make this deal.

This is when non-tendering Alvarez comes into play. Ross is making his second trip through arbitration (meaning the Marlins would also have him in tow for 2017) and is projected to earn $10 million. You’d be paying Ross just $6 million more than Alvarez to pitch at a near ace level minus the risk that comes with recovering from a serious shoulder injury. It would be nice to have both, but the Marlins just don’t have that kind of money to spend. Estimated payroll now stands at $69.45 million.

Trade Mike Dunn

As it stands, the Marlins have a little more than $10 million in their budget. This isn’t enough to add a starting pitcher through free agency, which is something of a necessity still. There are probably a dozen teams looking for relief help, with Dunn being of interest to most of them. It would be a good chance for these teams to buy low on a reliever who can pitch toward the back end of a bullpen, but who was plagued by the homerun last season (11.1% HR/FB versus 6.2% previous 3 seasons). $3.45 million for a medium-high leverage reliever is sure to draw tons of interest on the trade market, so the Marlins wouldn’t be trading him for nothing. They could probably get something like what they received for Steve Cishek: a reliever with intriguing stuff and 6 years of control who is ready to step into the bullpen now. The Marlins have done fairly well in trading for relievers, with Capps and Morris playing big roles and Kyle Barraclough possessing some upside if he harnesses his stuff more. Along with another arm for the pen, the Marlins would receive some financial relief, with their estimated payroll now at $66 million.

Sign Scott Kazmir

Besides being a pretty good story, Scott Kazmir is also a pretty good starting pitcher. After established himself as a solid mid-rotation starter who then fell off the map, he established himself as a mid-rotation start again with Cleveland in 2013. He’s fiddled with his repertoire a bit and has figured out how to be a quality starter again. With Fernandez and Ross filling in the first two slots of the rotation, Kazmir gives you a pretty good option for your third starter. He, too, will benefit from improved defense; the Marlins ranked 10th overall in UZR last season, with the A’s and Astros (the two teams Kazmir pitched for last season) ranking 26th and 19th, respectively.

At this point, Kazmir is no longer an uncertainty. Heading into 2015, you might be a little skeptical about his previous two seasons and what they mean going forward. After putting up another fine year, you feel just fine giving him a multiyear contract. After wrapping up a 2 year deal, Kazmir will probably be looking for at least 3 years, with that probably getting bumped to 4 years. I’d go up to 4 years $56 million on him. Kazmir seems to be a bit undervalued because of his rough patch and the first two or three years of this deal could be a good bargain, with maybe the last year or two simply paying him market rates for his production. This is a good and much needed boost to the rotation right now, however, and I think Kazmir is the best option for the Marlins at the mid-tier of starting pitchers. Estimated payroll now stands at $80 million.

Sign Dexter Fowler

There are probably two arguments against this: the Marlins don’t have space in the budget for Fowler and they would have to surrender a draft pick (their first is protected) to sign him since he rejected a qualifying offer. There might be an argument for Denard Span instead, since he wasn’t offered a qualifying offer, but his injury and declining defense are concerns. While he might come much cheaper, maybe even on a one year deal, there’s too much risk and not enough certainty, so I opted for the Fowler route. The Marlins have a weak system and their 2nd round pick in the 2016 draft isn’t going to magically turn it out around. After trading Ozuna, they need to fill an outfield spot and, despite centerfield now being vacant and Fowler having played center his whole career, Fowler should be signed to play leftfield; Christian Yelich should be shifted over to center. Fowler has never been a very good centerfielder and Yelich is probably more capable to handle those duties. We know Fowler is a good hitter and he might even prove to be a positive defender in leftfield. He just put up a 3 win season with a BABIP about 30 points lower than his career average, so there definitely might be a couple more 3 win seasons in his near future. The upside of a Fowler-Yelich-Stanton outfield probably has less upside than a Yelich-Ozuna-Stanton outfield, but there’s definitely a lot more certainty.

So how about that money situation? Fowler is expected to sign somewhere in the 4 year $60 million range. A $95 million payroll in 2016 is probably out of the question, but backloading the deal might give the Marlins a chance to make this deal. This would mean some pretty creative structuring of the contract and I’m thinking of something like yearly salaries of $5, $16, $20, and $25 million plus a $4 million signing bonus. This would bring the contract to 4 years and $70 million. It might take away some financial flexibility from years three and four of the deal, but it also means bringing in a good player who fills a hole and will help you compete right now. Estimated payroll before league minimum salaries now rests at $85 million for 2016.

Re-sign Henderson Alvarez

You thought that was the last you’d see of him? Non-tendering Alvarez means he can sign where he wants, but the Marlins should make a major effort to retain him at a lower price. He’ll certainly warrant more than just a Minor League deal, so he’s going to require a some level of salary that’s going to count against the team’s payroll. The key is to minimize the risk as much as possible. My suggestion? A $1 million base salary with innings incentive totaling $6 million. If Alvarez never pitches an inning, you’re out a million. If he gets healthy and pitches a full season, giving you possible front end of the rotation run prevention, he’s still a bargain at $6 million. He also stands to earn more than he would going through the arbitration process, which is the incentive he needs to sign a deal with a base salary of $1 million. This is the only way I would feel comfortable retaining Alvarez. The downside of this deal is it could potential push the payroll over $90 million, but if you get a full season of good Alvarez, and acceptable health across the board, this team has a shot to push for contention.

These moves don’t do much to address the team’s lack of depth but there isn’t much to be done on that front aside from hit on some minor league free agents. There is some pretty substantial money being committed to a team that could meet a similar fate as last season’s, but the upside is far greater. Moderate health might mean something like an 85 win team and while that still might not be enough to secure a wildcard or the NL East, it wouldn’t be for a lack of trying. Backloading the Fowler deal handcuffs them quite a bit in years 2018 and 2019, especially when players like Stanton and Fernandez start to make serious money. The important thing is this buys the team some time to replenish their farm system through the draft and international signings, with the next wave of players hopefully coming up four to five years from now.

Through their own fault, the Marlins are in a position where they should rebuild but probably can’t do so, logically. Alienation of the fanbase is always a huge threat and the team has also invested too much in restructuring its front office, signing Stanton and Yelich to long-term deals, and trading away much of its young talent last offseason. Is this plan foolproof? No. There is still considerable risk. But an offseason like this at least reflects smart thinking, which is all you could ask for at this time.