Is it Smart for the Marlins to Rebuild?

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Miami Marlins
Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton salutes the crowd after falling one home run shy of 60 for the season. (Photo Courtesy: CBS Sports)

The regular season is behind us and the off-season is now looming rapidly, so naturally, with that comes trade speculation and rumors. Though, players aren’t usually the ones starting those rumors. That is, until this past weekend. Marlins slugger, and likely NL MVP, Giancarlo Stanton told Jon Heyman that he wants out of Miami if the Marlins rebuild, saying “I’ve lost for seven years…I don’t want to rebuild.” This report comes from the same weekend where Stanton fell short in his chase for 60 home runs, finishing at 59 for the year. He took a curtain call for the home fans as the modest crowd of 25,222 cheered wildly for their franchise hero. All of this begs the question, why would the Marlins rebuild? Would it even be a smart move?

For starters, the Marlins have no shortage of offensive talent. As a team in 2017, they ranked second in the NL in batting average (.267) and hits (1,497), fourth in total bases (2,412), fifth in runs (778), sixth in on-base percentage (.331) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.761).

Individually, you’ve got Marcell Ozuna putting together a career year, slashing .312/.376/.548 (all career highs), with 37 HRs and 124 RBI, not to mention an OPS+ of 145. He put together a 5.8 WAR season, as well as compiling 10 Rdrs (defensive runs saved) in the field, the second highest total of his career (11 in 2014). Looking at this, it is pretty evident that the move from center field to left field was very effective this year.

Along with Ozuna would be Christian Yelich, who, while not as effective as in 2016, still put up solid offensive numbers. With 18 HRs and 81 RBI to go with a slashline of .282/.369/.439. He had a WAR of 3.9, though he put together a dWAR of -0.3, possibly due to an Rdrs of -6.

Rounding out their outfield is, obviously, Stanton. .281/.376/.631. That was his slashline this year in a 59 HR, 132 RBI season in which he compiled an OPS+ of 165, 65 points higher than the league average, which was second in the NL to only Joey Votto (168). Stanton also had 10 Rdrs this season to go with a .988 fielding percentage and 0.4 dWAR, not to mention a 7.6 WAR.

Aside from these three stars (who might combine to be the best outfield in baseball), you have some surprise contributors, such as catcher J.T. Realmuto or first baseman Justin Bour.

Realmuto was superb this year, ranking second in batting average (.278), hits (148), runs (68) and doubles (31), third in OBP (.330), SLG (.453), OPS (.783), and sixth in RBI (65) among all MLB catchers.

Meanwhile, Bour finally lived up to his offensive potential, swatting a career high 25 HRs and 83 RBI, along with career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage (.289/.366/.536). He also had an OPS+ of 139, plus a 2.3 WAR. His dWAR was -0.8 and had a -2 Rdrs, so that’s not terribly promising, but he showed great improvement in power this year and that’s something that most teams would take at first base rather than defense. He also did this in just 108 games. He hit at a 162 game pace of 37 HRs and 124 RBI.

In contrast to their surplus of talent, Miami still has several holes. Their weakness lies in their pitching. With an abysmal team ERA of 4.82 (good for 13th in the NL) and absolutely no closer to depend on, their pitching staff is just a black hole of talent, in that it is non-existent. There was just one even remotely decent spot in the rotation, and that was Jose Ureña. Ureña went 14-7 with a 3.82 ERA and a 1.273 WHIP, which all just screams “okay.” He was the only Marlins starter with an ERA+ over 100, which is incredibly sad. But still, those numbers are fine for a solid number three or four starter. However, he was their best pitcher. By a lot. Woof. They need an upgrade in the rotation, badly. The Marlins reached by signing Wei-Yin Chen to a five year/$80M contract before the 2016 season. He responded by 7-6 with a 4.72 ERA, 1.228 WHIP, and an 84 ERA+ in just 31 games over the last two seasons. So that investment is paying off handsomely.

In the bullpen, there’s a who’s who of “who the hell is that?” Aside from former Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa (who was terrible this year), there was nobody notable aside from David Phelps, who was shipped to Seattle before the trade deadline, and A.J. Ramos, who is now pitching in the division with the Mets. I’m not going to go too more in depth about the Marlins bullpen because nobody should have to do that. Brian Ellington had a 7.25 ERA, a WHIP of nearly 2.0 (he finished the year at 1.858) and an ERA+ of 57, which I didn’t know could be done so I guess it’s sort of impressive.

Now, they have two clear choices: build upon their outstanding offensive core by fixing their holes, or cutting bait and rebuilding. One major issue, and the clear case for rebuilding, is that the Marlins owe $400M in debt. They really shouldn’t be signing big name free-agents, but I don’t believe that selling off players like Yelich, Ozuna, Realmuto, Bour, or Stanton would bring back prospects who live up to that caliber. You really can’t bet on that, considering how rarely prospects pan out. At the same time, the Marlins do not have a farm system, so trading these players quickly would be the only way to rebuild a barren minor league system. Plus, Stanton’s contract is going to be a nightmare to move, with the Marlins likely having to eat much of the $310M remaining on that contract (though only $77M of that is guaranteed, as Stanton has an opt-out clause after the 2020 season). However, in doing so, the Marlins are setting themselves up for several more years of failure before any of those prospects would be ready to come up and form a competitive team. Are the new owners willing to do that? Doing so would alienate an already apathetic fan-base and likely force a perennially empty stadium to be even more empty.

If Derek Jeter and co. don’t want to lose for the foreseeable future, they’ll need to open up the purse strings this offseason. The pitching staff is the clear weakness, so they could throw money at either Jake Arrieta and hope that he will return to the form of his NL Cy Young season, or hand Yu Darvish a blank check and tell him to name his price. At the same time, if Masahiro Tanaka opts out of his contract with the Yankees, the Marlins could offer him a contract as well. Tanaka doesn’t have much bargaining power considering the inconsistency of his 2017 season, which helps the Marlins chances. Still, any one of those starters are likely to command upwards of $20M per year. Along with one of those three pitchers, the Marlins could try and sign Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn on reasonable contracts (presumably in the $10M-15M range).

As for the bullpen, Greg Holland is likely to decline his 2018 option following a year in which he led the NL in saves with 41 after a year-long absence from baseball. The Marlins could spend on him or his former Royals teammate Wade Davis. Both are dominant closers and would cost, like Cobb and Lynn, in the $10M-15M range. This would potentially fill their holes, though, and makes them a more competitive team (on paper, of course).

With these hypothetical moves, the Marlins will have signed two starters and a closer for a rough estimate of $50M per year. If they now have an ace, a number two starter, and a top of the line closer, they can presumably compete for a Wild Card as soon as next year. A competitive team (something the city hasn’t seen from the franchise since 2009 when the Fish finished in second place in the NL East at 87-75) means more revenue in ticket and merchandise sales. This year, Miami was in the bottom three in attendance for the third time in the last five years. Some kind of significant change needs to be made to improve team revenue and I think the only way to make money is to spend money in this particular instance. This is not to say that selling won’t create revenue; it will, but it won’t help significantly for quite some time.

The new owners have a huge decision to make, and it’s not an easy one. A rebuild means losing for another four or five years, I would imagine. Though it makes it easier to pay off the debts that they have inherited from former owner Jeffrey Loria (a historically awful owner), I don’t think it’s the right answer right now. You can still pay off that debt over time if you field a competitive, winning team, which is certainly possible to do as early as next season. It is true that rebuilds are effective and helpful in the transformation of teams. I just don’t think it is the right choice right now for this franchise. Ultimately, who knows what the new owners will do? All we do know is that we will soon find out if Stanton’s season finale curtain call was also his final moment in a Marlins uniform.

(All stats as of 10/2/17)

By: Chris Perkowski

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