Winter Report Card: Marlins smartly keep Fernandez in solid off-season
With less than five weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Miami Marlins.
71–91 (.438), fourth place in National League East (Hot Stove Preview)
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
The Marlins made far more headlines than moves this off-season thanks to early and persistent rumors that the team was looking to trade 23-year-old ace Jose Fernandez. Unfortunately for the rest of baseball, Miami proved keenly aware of just how valuable Fernandez is and set its asking price so high that no team was willing to pay it. That was the correct result for both the Marlins and their potential trading partners, for reasons I’ll get to below.
The Marlins started their winter with shakeups in the dugout and front office, first hiring former Dodgers manager Don Mattingly to replace repurposed general manager Dan Jennings, then pulling what had been a standing offer to Jennings to return to the GM job, firing him from the organization and assigning the GM duties to president of baseball operations Michael Hill, who had preceded Jennings as the team’s general manager. Miami then made further headlines in early December by hiring disgraced home run king Barry Bonds to be the team's new hitting coach, demoting incumbent Frank Menechino to assistant hitting coach. The position marks Bonds’s first full-time position in MLB since he was essentially forced into retirement after the 2007 season.
In terms of actual player transactions, however, the Marlins didn't make much noise in the early going. The only trade Miami has made all off-season was a late-October swap of minor-league righties, sending 20-year-old Colombian Richard Mitchell, who has made all of ten appearances in the U.S., to the Pirates for soon-to-be–24-year-old Trevor Williams, who spent most of 2015 in Double A. The first months of free agency, meanwhile, brought only a pair of re-signings. In October, the Marlins gave fourth outfielder Ichiro Suzuki a one-year, $2 million deal for his age-42 season to chase 3,000 hits and Pete Rose's all-time career hits record; he also got a $2 million option for 2017 in case he doesn’t reach those milestones. Miami also brought back backup catcher Jeff Mathis in mid-December, paying $1.5 million for the age-33 season of a catcher with a career OPS+ of 52.
Far more interesting than any of the those transactions was the decision in early December to non-tender starting pitcher Henderson Alvarez, a 2014 All-Star who will turn 26 in April and had two team-controlled years remaining with the Fish. Henderson underwent surgery to repair the labrum in his pitching shoulder in late July and was not expected to be ready for Opening Day, but the decision to release him clearly speaks to the Marlins' pessimism about his ability to return to his former level. With Alvarez now a member of the Athletics, however, it wouldn’t be shocking to see that move—one that will save the Marlins only $5 million or so—backfire on Miami.
Accusing the Marlins of pinching pennies, however, is increasingly out of touch. A year after giving rightfielder Giancarlo Stanton the largest contract in major league history, Miami handed out an additional $130 million in new contracts this past week. First, the Marlins picked up the best remaining free-agent starting pitcher on the market in lefty Wei-Yin Chen, who signed for $80 million over five years (a deal that has yet to be officially announced by the team but has been widely and consistently reported by reliable sources). After that, Miami signed second baseman Dee Gordon to a five-year, $50 million extension. Both contracts also include vesting options for the 2021 season.
Gordon was arbitration eligible for the second time coming off a second straight All-Star season in which he won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards and got some down-ballot MVP votes after winning the batting title (.333) and leading the majors in hits (205) and stolen bases (58 at a 74% success rate). Gordon’s batting average is sure to drop in the coming season, bringing down his overall value with it, and his stolen bases are overrated due to his underwhelming success rates, but his improvements in the field have rendered him a viable everyday player, and his speed is undeniably an asset (he has 119 infield hits over the last two years). Signed through his age-32 season, he projects to be worth more than $50 million over the next five years even if he normalizes at 2.5 Wins Above Replacement in each of 2016 and '17 (he was worth 4.9 bWAR this past season, per baseball-reference.com). More to the point: The Marlins actually extended an arbitration-eligible All-Star rather than trading him. Along with the Stanton contract and last March’s seven-year extension for leftfielder Christian Yelich, that move represents a radical chance of course for the franchise.
As for Chen, his contract is nearly identical to the deal the Cardinals gave Mike Leake in late December ($80 million over five years with a 2021 option). There are a few notable differences, though: Leake has a full no-trade clause while Chen has none, Leake’s option is mutual while Chen’s is a vesting player option based on innings pitched, and, most significantly, Chen has an opt-out after the 2017 season. That could leave his deal as a two-year, $28 million contract for a quality 30-year-old lefthanded starter—a tremendous steal for Miami. Even at $80 million over five years, this is a solid signing for the Marlins, as Chen should slot in as a solid No. 2 behind Fernandez for the next three years (and possibly more if the Fish can convince Scott Boras to let Fernandez stay in Miami beyond his scheduled free agency after the 2018 season).
That, of course, brings us back to Fernandez. With three team-controlled years remaining, his trade value could increase significantly with a strong 2016 campaign. Fernandez has Cy Young-quality stuff and, if he can stay healthy after losing most of the last two seasons to Tommy John surgery, he could emerge as the best young pitcher in baseball. Not one of the best—the best. Look at his career numbers: 336 strikeouts in 289 innings (a 10.5 strikeout-per-nine ratio), a 2.40 ERA, a 2.52 FIP, a 160 ERA+ and a 22–9 record for a team with a .432 winning percentage during his major league career. That’s what Fernandez has done after making the leap from Class A to the majors at the age of 20 and while heading toward and coming out of major elbow surgery. In 19 starts in the partial seasons surrounding his Tommy John surgery—a procedure that often impacts a pitcher's control in the short-term—he has posted a 5.52 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and his velocity in 2015, after the surgery, was even better than it was in '13, when he was last fully healthy.
A pitcher that excellent is too good to trade for almost any price, particularly when the Marlins still have a team that generated cautious optimism a year ago. With healthy seasons from Fernandez, Stanton and reliever Carter Capps, a rebound from centerfielder Marcell Ozuna (another talented youngster on whom Miami was smart not to sell low) and maturation from Yelich, sophomore first baseman Justin Bour and second-year catcher J.T. Realmuto, the Marlins could get a significant boost in the NL East. That division is ripe for the taking, as well, with two rebuilding cellar-dwellers (the Phillies and Braves) and two underwhelming favorites in the Mets, who seem increasingly unlikely to replace free-agent slugger Yoenis Cespedes, and the Nationals, who lost starter Jordan Zimmermann to free agency and stand to lose shortstop Ian Desmond as well.
Two other smaller signings rounded out the winter for the Marlins: one-year deals for corner infielder Chris Johnson and pitcher Edwin Jackson. Both are upside plays that will only cost the league minimum, given that the Indians and Cubs (respectively) remain on the hook for the remainder of their current contracts, and the righthanded Johnson fits well as a potential platoon partner for the lefty-swinging Bour at first base.
Unfinished Business: The back of the rotation
The Marlins made a big rotation splash with Chen and have numerous incumbent options for the final three spots in the rotation—Tom Koehler, David Phelps, Jarred Cosart, Justin Nicolino, Adam Conley, Brad Hand and Jose Urena. But that lack of one more established starting pitcher could be the only thing preventing Miami from being a real threat to New York and Washington in the coming season.
Preliminary Grade: B-
The Suzuki and Mathis deals are garbage that prevented the team from making necessary upgrades to their bench, and the team’s overall inaction was disconcerting, but only up to a point. File the retention of Fernandez and Ozuna under “sometimes it’s the trades you don’t make...” and give the Marlins credit for spending big on Chen and locking up Gordon rather than punting him when he got expensive. If I graded on a curve and gave Miami credit for subverting their history of miserliness, they’d fare even better. Even without the curve, however, the Marlins' off-season was a net positive and positions them well as a sleeper for the coming season.