With the tragedy of Jose Fernandez still fresh in our minds, we look back on a Marlins’ season and team that was much alike teams from years past: good but just not good enough. After sitting pretty at 57-48 on July 31, a true contender for their first postseason in 13 years, the injury bug and their lack of minor league depth bit the Fish and they fell back down to earth. At season’s end, the Marlins were 7.5 back of the second wildcard spot. So the question is with very little of a minor league system to speak of, the question is, after several years of mediocrity, where do the Fish go from here?
There’s no denying it: the Marlins don’t have very much of a minor league system. After failing to have a single prospect crack top 100 lists this past offseason, Miami only has one sure-fire top 100 prospect (Luis Castillo), a potential second (Braxton Garrett) and a longshot third (Dillon Peters) headed in to 2017. There’s also no getting past the fact that this team has glaring holes in their starting rotation and bullpen (and each of the aforementioned pitchers at least a season away), a huge question mark at shortstop, and a very short bench which has the likes Chris Johnson leading it in ABs. So, without the talent to fill those holes in the lower levels of the system and a very thin free agent class at the spots they need to address, the most logical decision for a team that wants to do more than just tread water would be to sell off its biggest assets and go in to rebuilding mode. However, sometimes the best thing isn’t necessarily the right thing. While baseball is still a business and Jeffrey Loria is still a businessman, this is a community that will be turning to him and the rest of the Marlins’ front office to heal the wound left behind after it lost one of its biggest heroes, not to mention a guy who did everything he could, no matter how tall the task, in order to succeed whether it be successfully fleeing Cuba on his third attempt or returning from Tommy John surgery without losing a single step in his game. Add to that the fact that Loria who isn’t a young man anymore (he turns 76 in November) has recently re-signed the likes of Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich long-term, re-inking Martin Prado, and traded young assets for proven stars like Dee Gordon, it is pretty obvious that the Marlins’ owner, staring retirement in the face in the next two to three years, wants to win and win now.
Like Fernandez’s aforementioned pilgrimage from communist Cuba to the United States, making the Marlins a viable contender this offseason will be tough. Tough but not impossible. It will take a carefully constructed and busy offseason (one which, with all hope, Mike Hill won’t be overseeing), the Marlins can partially rebuild their minor league system with players on the verge of their call as well as improve at the major league level immediately. Here are a few potential moves the Miami could make in order to make that a reality.
Trade Marcel Ozuna, Adeiny Hechavarria and Kendry Flores to Tampa Bay Rays for Willy Adames and Brandon Koch
Marcell Ozuna, the Marlins’ 25-year-old outfielder who enters his first of three arbitration years this season making him one of many arbi eligible Marlins this year which, in addition to the contracts of Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich, will cause payroll to jump significantly this year, was rumored to be a potential trade candidate last offseason after the Marlins came to odds with Ozuna’s agent, Scott Boras. After an even better season in 2016, one which earned him his first All-Star Game nod, teams in need of outfield help will definitely be interested in Ozuna, who in addition to a .266/.321/.452, 23 HR year by way of below-average .296 BABIP (18th lowest of 27 qualified NL outfielders), has eligibility at all three outfield positions and is in total a +5 DRS and a 10.8 UZR career player. With a surplus of in-house talent in the outfield including Derek Dietrich who just had a career best .279/.374/.425 year in 128 games and 351 ABs, the most extensive action he’s seen in his career, and who has definitely played himself into contention for a starting spot, and Xavier Scruggs who received his call-up late this year after becoming the second best player in all of AAA and who, with a good spring, could be in the discussion for the Opening Day roster, shopping Ozuna presents the Marlins their best chance to bring back quality young talent.
As for Hechavarria, his egg lay of a season slash-line wise albeit by way of a low .270 BABIP and batted ball stats which showed he should have hit significantly better (as I laid out here), makes him a huge question mark offensively headed into 2017. One thing is for certain, though: Hech is a wizard defensively at shortstop, definitely one of the best gloves and quite possibly the best at the position in baseball. He proved that this year by way of a +9 DRS (sixth best in the game) an 8.8 UZR (10th best) and a 15.1 Def rating (9th best). Over the last two years, Hech’s 36.7 total Def rating is fourth best in MLB as is his 24.6 UZR and his +18 DRS. Because of the uncertainty surrounding his bat though, this offseason may present the most advantageous time for the Marlins to trade high on Hech.
The inclusion of Kendry Flores, a fringe player so far in his career who has decent stuff but who struggled mightiliy with control above the AA level as well as injuries and may be destined for a long-relief type bullpen role, is of the low-risk loss for the Marlins, potentially high-reward gain for the Rays throw-in variety.
Willy Adames is a 21-year-old shortstop, is the best prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays system and the number 46 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America. A Dominican Republic native brought over as an international signee in 2013, Adames has made it to AA in just three short seasons, jumping two levels in 2014 by way of a .271/.353/.429 line and by posting the 13th best OBP (.342) and OPS (.721) in the FSL despite being one of its youngest players in 2015. Most recently, Adames has continued his surge towards the majors by becoming the Southern League’s second best OPS (.802), its fifth best SLG (.430) by way of 31 doubles (third most in his league) six triples (fourth most) and 11 homers (eighth most) and it’s fifth best OBP (.372) by way of a league-most 74 walks. His exports in 2016 also earned him a spot on the World Team in the 2016 Futures Game. Staring AAA in the face this coming year, Adames is a career .265/.366/.409 bat with a 13% BB% .
A current gap-to-gap threat who exhibits quick hands and great bat speed, fantastic patience and a knowledge of the strike zone well beyond his years especially considering he’s spent the last two years playing against much older competition (which stands the reason his 22% K% should almost certainly improve), Adames, who also possesses slightly above average speed (he had a career high 13 steals this year) and is currently just 6’1″, 180, has the ability to grow in to a rare all-around hitting middle infielder with plus power and a great eye. Scouts have rated his MLB ceiling at as high as a plenty impressive .270/.350/.450.
Adames’ fantastic offensive skill set is rivaled by the work he does with his glove and arm. Touted as one of the best infield guns in all of baseball (a 60 on the 30-80 scale), Adames makes accurate on line throws when given time and makes life incredibly easy on his first baseman. Up until this past season, the only knock on Adames’ defensive game was the fact that his average speed limited him from covering the necessary ground at short. He silenced that criticism by posting his best year range wise, committing the fewest errors he ever has in full-season ball. His speed, made relevant by the fact he stole the most bases he ever has (13) took a slight jump and his throws from the hole were less rushed. While a move to third base still isn’t out of the question for Adames later in his career, he will at least start his career at short which, again at just barely 21, makes him a long term answer for the Marlins’ somewhat long term woes at the position come 2017. With a bevy of talented middle infielders among their ranks including Lucius Fox, Daniel Robertson and Adrian Rondon, all shortstops who rank among their top 15 prospects, the Rays, who aren’t expected to contend within the next few years, will likely sell on Adames if the price is right. That price is young outfield talent (Ozuna) which the team as well as its system lacks as well as a shortstop who could bridge the gap to one of the aforementioned young future stars expected to arrive in 2019 (Hechavarria).
Along with plenty of talent at the shortstop position, the Rays also possess plenty of B-type talent at the starting pitcher spot. In a trade such as this, it would give the Marlins a pick of the litter among several talented future B-type arms scattered between the rankings of 5-13 in their organization.
Signed internationally by the Twins in 2012, Hu advanced through Minnesota’s lower minors by way of a 8-2, 2.15 ERA, 65/15 K/BB 2014 season between rookie ball and low A including a very succesful 55 IP in the Midwest League which saw him holding down the Cedar Rapids Kernals’ lowest ERA (2.29) among those with at least 50 IP as well as its best WHIP (0.96). Despite the somewhat short stay, his seven wins tied him for second most on that team. The Taiwan native continued impressing the Twins’ brass in 2015 when he posted a 2.44 ERA in 84.2 IP for the Fort Myers Miracle of the A+ Florida State League, making him the best starter on his team and on pace to be the second lowest ERA in his entire league. His exports impressed the Minnesota front office so much he was called upon to make a spot start all the way up in AAA Rochester, a start in which he went a quality six frames and allowed just one run. The Rays came calling for Hu’s services at the deadline and successfully acquired them in the Kevin Jepsen trade. This past season, Hu held down a 2.59 ERA in 142.2 IP by way of a 1.15 WHIP. In Southern League’s seventh most IP, his ERA raked eighth amongst full time starters and his 1.15 WHIP ranked tenth. Amongst those who went at least 0.8 IP per league game, his ERA was th all around best and his WHIP was third best. His 107 Ks ranked eighth. Once again, for a different club, his full season exports impressed the organization enough to earn him a look in AAA. He will get more than a look there in 2017 and, if his success continues, he could earn his MLB debut as early as the beginning of the second half of the season.
Stuff wise, Hu is as intriguing as they come. While he won’t blow anyone away with velo, (his heat can hit as high as 96 but usually rests in the 90-92 MPH area) the command and control he has over of all of his pitches is what has and what will in the future make him an effective hurler. Accompanying his heat which he throws fairly interchangeably with all of his other offerings which keeps hitters on their toes, is a changeup (probably his best secondary pitch), a low 80’s offering from the circle-change grip which consistently shows drop-off-the-table type movement and which he can run to either corner. Again, with the command and control he has over it like all of his other pitches, it is already a plus plus pitch. Hu also has a rare commodity — a palmball — which currently projects at a 50 on the 20/80 scale. Thrown from the same arm slot as his fastball and changeup, the pitch is straight but painfully slow, sitting around 69-72 MPH. One more, he locates it nicely and it is a nice mix-in for a guy who likes to get in the head of his opposition. Piggybacking this nearly eephus type pitch with his high 90s heat early in counts makes Hu incredibly frustrating to face and pick up. Add to his offspeed repertoire a slider which he developed just this past year and, thanks to hard late movement both in and out in the 83-85 MPH range, has already become a plus pitch and moved ahead of his about average but still very useable curveball on the list of his best assets. With five complete pitches, all of which he throws with complete confidence, a slow deceptive delivery, the ability to live all around the zone and induce swings and misses when he deliberately goes out of it, the ability to make up for a lack of fiery heat because of a tricky mix of offspeed velocities which allow him to easily go deep in to starts, great arm speed and a great feel and head for pitching that allows him to get under the skin of opposing hitters and which allowed him to succeed against older competition for two years running, Hu more than makes up for his unathletic frame (already 6’1, 209 at age 22) and is on the verge of making his MLB debut far ahead of schedule. With continued success in AAA this year, Hu could contribute at the professional level as early as the second half of 2017 as a back end starter with the potential to become more.
Sign Andres Blanco to stop-gap at shortstop
After three years in Philadelphia which have equated to a .274/.337/.457 slash line, Blanco becomes a free agent. The earliest of those seasons began in 2014 after Blanco spent the start of that season in AAA and, after just a .598 start, in a return to overseas ball in Venezuela. A .293/.383/.415 tenure there attracted the Phillies to his talent. His exports thereafter, albeit in limited time, speak for themselves. He enters free agency at 32 years old as a career .264/.317/.388 bat. More impressive when it comes to Blanco’s game is his glove which has lead to him being a defensive replacement and pinch hitter at this spot in his career. In 914 career innings at shortstop, he is a +7 DRS player. His UZR at short is a +3.9 and his double play runs above average (DPR) is an impressive +4. Although Blanco’s power at the plate which has spelled a .457 SLG along with 12 of his 15 MLB homers would likely even out here in the pitcher friendly Marlins Park, Blanco does enough at the plate to warrant signing him for his glove and making the Marlins not miss Hechavarria. There is some question as to Blanco’s stamina and ability to perform in an every day role considering he has only appeared in more than 100 games once at the major league level which will likely allow him to come at a thrifty price but that 100 game season was his best as a pro. It came in 2015 when he hit .292/.360/.502. After what we have seen at short offensively this past year, I would more than take that and even take a slightly lesser version of that for a single season (and perhaps less depending on how fast Adames progresses). Think of Blanco as a older but better offensive version of Hech and the perfect situational signing for the Fish.
Sign Doug Fister to fill out a back end rotation spot
Doug Fister is a guy who the Marlins pursued last offeason and a name whom will come at an even cheaper price this season. The reason for that is because Fister was signed by the Houston Astros who play in a hitters’ heaven and because of the career low K/BB Fister posted there. Even still, Fister was able to post a positive WAR season (+1.1). Fister posted a decent 4.19 ERA out bullpen role for the Nationals in 2014 by way of a .310 BABIP, second highest in his career, leading up to that signing last offseason but before that, he was a Cy Young candidate. In 2014, he went 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA, sixth lowest in the National League. His 1.08 WHIP that year was also an NL 11th best.
Fister isn’t a guy who is going to dominate games or even strike out a lot of guys as is evident by his 16% career K rate and 10.8 career K/BB% but, despite some ups and downs, he is a still effective back end rotational innings eater who has never posted a negative WAR in a single season. After struggling in Houston he should, as a thrifty option, thrive in pitcher friendly Miami. In three career starts at Marlins Park in which he has held the opposing Fish to a .204/.278/.347 line, Fister has already begun to build that reputation.
Target Ivan Nova
After a somewhat successful minor league career, Nova, a 2008 rule 5 draft pick, had an overall miserable career with the Yankees. It equated to a 4.41 ERA by way of a 4.40 FIP and a 1.388 WHIP and included injury in 2013 and in 2014, Tommy John surgery which kept him out until June of 2015. Despite pitching with the best velo he’s ever had coming off of his shoulder repair that year, Nova struggled mightily with control, having only 40.6% of his pitches hit the strikezone, by far a career low. This spelled an ERA over 5 (5.07) by way of a 4.87 FIP and a 1.40 WHIP. After experimenting with him out of the bullpen to begin 2016 which again, was subpar (5.14 ERA in 14 IP) and giving him his last shot in their rotation which was equally as bad as he has ever been (45 ER in 82.2 IP, 4.92 ERA) and an overall 4.90 ERA, 5.10 FIP, 1.356 WHIP in his first 97.1 2016 innings, the Yankees cut their losses with Nova and dealt him to the Pirates. In Pittsburgh and in a contract year, Nova revived his career pitching to the tune of a 3.06 ERA, a 2.62 WHIP and a 1.096 WHIP in 11 starts. All three stats were by far the best he has posted in his major league career. His work with the Pirates also improved his peripherals to a 9.4 swinging strike percentage, tying a career high, an 80.9 contact percentage, his lowest since his only effective season in Yankee pinstripes in 2013, and a career high 43.9 zone percentage (the percentage of pitches he threw in the strike zone). He also threw first pitch strikes at a career high 61.7 rate. He also either equaled or improved upon his career high velocities with every one of his pitches, including a 92.5 MPH two-seamer, an 87 MPH slider, and an 86 MPH changeup. Judging by all of this as well as his 2.2 WAR season in slightly hitter friendly PNC Park, Nova’s change of scenery and change of league has done Nova wonders and his career is back with a vengeance. Dismally short of veteran pitching talent, the Marlins, who play in pitcher friendly Marlins Park, should be a major player for Nova’s services, which should come at a fairly thrifty rate because of his rich injury history, this offseason. Should his health stay intact and should his effective work continue, at just 29, he still has several years ahead of him.
Offer Tim Lincecum a minor league deal
After four straight All-Star worthy seasons from 2008-2011 including two Cy Young Award winning seasons in ’08 and ’09, Lincecum hit the schnide in 2012 when he allowed a career high 107 runs in 186 innings. His sudden spike in ERA came by way of a 4.18 FIP (proving most of it was his fault) and by way of a 1.468 WHIP, over a half a point higher than any total he had posted to this point. That theme continued from 2013-2014 when Lincecum posted a collective 4.53 ERA and 1.315 and 1.394. Over those two years, Lincecum’s fastball velo dropped nearly a full mile an hour from 90.4 to 89.6. His slider also fell from 83.4 to an even 81 and his changeup from 83.2 to 82.5. His control also took a dive as hitters made contact at an increased 78% rate in 2014, up nearly a full 4% from his 2012 mark. His swinging strike percentage also fell from 11.5% to a career low 9.7%. After an equally ineffective start to his 2015 campaign which equated to a 4.13 ERA by way of a 4.29 FIP and a 1.48 WHIP and a 60/38 K/BB, Lincecum elected to undergo surgery on a troublesome hip. Lincecum entered free agency at the end of that season and was picked up by the Los Angeles Angels. The two-time Cy Young winner signed for a chump-change figure of under $2 million. Despite some decent work in the AAA on his way back (38.1 IP, 3.76 ERA, 37/14 K/BB), Lincecum struggled mightily in nine games with the Angels, posting an ugly 9.63 ERA by way of a 7.16 FIP and a hideous 2.374 WHIP. His peripherals looked even worse as he hit the zone just 39.2% of the time and, despite the small sample size, got ahead with first pitch strikes just 49.5% of the time, both career lows. The lack of stuff was on full display, evident by his 26% swing rate outside of the zone and 71% swing rate on pitches in the zone as well as a career high 87.5% contact rate on stuff inside the zone.
The only reason I inlcude this 32-year-old in this series of suggested moves is because he is an a-typical Jeffrey Loria signing as a career reclamation project, because the Marlins pitch in an extreme pitchers’ park, and because of their complete lack of veteran starting pitching help. Despite his recent past and injuries and the fact that he is a shell of his former self, Lincecum’s distant past speaks for itself and shouldn’t be ignored when it comes to him being a low-risk, high-reward signing. If he can learn that he is never going to be what he once was and learn to harness a slower, more deceptive offspeed arsenal, he can still be effective as a spot starter or a long relief bullpen option.
Potential 2017 Starting Lineup
- 2B Dee Gordon
- 3B Martin Prado
- CF Christian Yelich
- RF Giancarlo Stanton
- 1B Justin Bour
- LF Derek Dietrich
- C J.T. Realmuto
- SS Andres Blanco
Potential 2017 Pitching Rotation
- Adam Conley
- Wei-Yin Chen
- Tom Koehler
- Ivan Nova
- Doug Fister
LRP/Spot Starter: Tim Lincecum/Justin Nicolino/Austin Brice
It should be noted that any rotation additions should come on deals of two years maximum. In addition to, in this situation, Hu being on the cusp of entering the majors and potentially making an impact as early as the midway point of the season, the Marlins are also biding their time until they can enlist the services of their top prospect, fireballing Luis Castillo, who, after earning FSL Pitcher of the Year honors as a Jupiter Hammerhead, received his call-up to AA late in the year in 2016. Castillo, who is 23, has the ability to reach triple digits with his heat which already ranks at a maximum of 80 on the 30/80 scale, has a debilitating 10-6 sinking slider. He exhibits fantastic control over a nearly complete (his changeup could use to gain some more rotational spin and run) four pitch arsenal. If the wiry 6’2″, 170 pound 23-year-old grows into his frame as well as the great arm speed he flashed this past year, the strikeout totals which were just average this past season (103 in 131 IP), should improve. A bulldog on the mound with a great competitive spirit, Castillo will tend to overthrow but, again, improved command is something that will come with more experience. With a few slight tweaks and grooming, he could find himself in the rotation this coming September if not sooner. It is for these two reasons that I include the likes of Nova and Fister, guys who are far more likely to accept shorter contracts, in this series of offseason moves rather than the likes of Jeremy Hellickson and Gio Gonzalez who will undoubtedly be seeking long term extensions.
These moves are hardly a means to an end. The Marlins still have some questions that need to be answered concerning their bench which is being led by Chris Johnson and their bullpen. Rather, these moves are a good start to what should prove to be a very interesting offseason for an on-the-cusp team looking to rectify major losses in more ways than one. Whatever the Marlins do in the wake of the loss of Jose, one thing is for sure: this offseason will be one we will be paying very close attention to.