Winter Report Card: Marlins stay the course in unimaginative off-season

Friday January 27th, 2017

Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Miami Marlins.

2016 Results

79–82 (.488), third place in National League East

Key Departures

RHP Andrew Cashner, LHP Mike Dunn, OF Jeff Francoeur*, 3B Chris Johnson*, C Jeff Mathis, RHP Fernando Rodney

Key Arrivals

C A.J. Ellis, LHP Jeff Locke, RHP Dan Straily, RHP Junichi Tazawa, RHP Edinson Volquez, RHP Brad Ziegler

(*free agent, still unsigned)

Off-season In Review

The Marlins had a straightforward approach this off-season: For nearly every person they lost to free agency, they acquired a replacement. Taking over as the veteran backup catcher for Mathis (who will now fill that role for the Diamondbacks) is fellow veteran Ellis, who split last year between the Dodgers and Phillies. Relievers Dunn and Rodney—now with the Rockies and Diamondbacks, respectively—have had their spots filled by Ziegler and Tazawa, both last of the Red Sox. The rotation lost Cashner to Texas and gained Straily in a trade and Volquez and Locke via free agency. But do any of these additions count as upgrades?

The changes in the bullpen should represent a step up. Rodney was awful in his short stint with the Marlins after an All-Star first half with the Padres, posting a 5.89 ERA and 25 walks in 36 2/3 innings. In his place will be Ziegler, who was terrific with the Diamondbacks and Red Sox as a setup man last year, with a 2.25 ERA in 68 total innings and a sterling 1.52 mark in 29 2/3 innings down the stretch for Boston. Ziegler is up there in years—he turned 37 in October—and has a fastball that averages a mere 83.9 mph; the sidearmer relies more on ground balls than strikeouts. Nonetheless, he is a good bet as a bridge to closer A.J. Ramos. Tazawa has had moments of brilliance in his career, but he was merely average last year as he battled injuries, pitching to a 4.17 ERA and allowing nine home runs in 49 2/3 innings with the Red Sox. Nonetheless, he has good control and swing-and-miss stuff when right.

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The rotation, too, should be better with the additions of Volquez and Straily. The former had a rough year with the Royals, with a 5.37 ERA and 23 home runs allowed in 189 1/3 innings, but he was excellent in 2014 for Pittsburgh and in '15 for Kansas City as he helped the franchise win the World Series. He should benefit from the move to Miami's pitcher-friendly park and the NL East as a whole. Straily, meanwhile, is an up-and-coming arm who put up a 3.76 ERA, 113 ERA+ and 4.3 WAR for the Reds last year. Just 28 years old, the righthander cost the Marlins three of their top prospects (pitchers Luis Castillo and Austin Brice and outfielder Isaiah White), but he is under team control for another four seasons and should be a big upgrade on the flotsam at the back of the Marlins' 2016 rotation. Cashner, meanwhile, won't be missed: The 30-year-old righty was lit up for a 5.98 ERA and 30 walks in 52 2/3 innings after coming to Miami in a deadline deal with the Padres. Despite those awful numbers, Cashner's stuff earned him a one-year deal with the Rangers.

Aside from those pitching additions, the Marlins didn’t do much else to improve their roster, deciding to plug holes rather than advance themselves. Miami did say goodbye to bench bats Francoeur and Johnson, who did little; the former hit just .280/.333/.360 after coming over in a late-August waiver deal, and the latter struggled as a part-time corner infielder, hitting .222/.281/.329 in 264 plate appearances. Locke, meanwhile, joins the team after a poor 2016 that saw him get bounced from the Pirates' rotation and give up 17 home runs in just 127 1/3 innings. The soft-tossing lefty will likely function as a spot starter and long reliever for Miami.

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Unfinished Business: The bench, more pitching

With Francoeur and Johnson gone, the Marlins could use another hitter off the bench, preferably one who can platoon with lefty Justin Bour at first base. The Fish have been linked to Chris Carter and Mark Reynolds, both of whom would fit the bill nicely as cheap righthanded veterans who offer some pop. Francoeur could still be an option to return as a reserve outfielder, meanwhile, backing up the impressive trio of Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich along with veteran legend Ichiro Suzuki.

Miami could also use more pitching. The success of the Marlins this season will rest on their new rotation, one that suffered the biggest loss of any team with the September death of ace Jose Fernandez. This year's starting five will consist of lefty Wei-Yin Chen, league-average righty Tom Koehler, young lefty Adam Conley, Volquez and Straily. Chen is no ace: He pitched to a 4.96 ERA and gave up 22 home runs in his first year with the Marlins and battled elbow issues. Conley was quite good in his second season, posting a 3.85 ERA with 124 strikeouts, and profiles as a potential No. 2 with upside, but his wildness (a 4.2 walks-per-nine rate) limits his effectiveness. The Marlins' trio of incoming starters (including Locke) should provide innings, but Straily is the only one coming off a good year. Unfortunately, there isn't much help to be found on the free-agent market, and the Marlins' farm system likely doesn't have the pieces to add an ace after the Straily trade.

Preliminary Grade: C+

Credit the Marlins for leaving no holes unplugged, but none of the moves are imaginative. They swapped journeyman relievers for journeyman relievers and young starters for potentially over-the-hill veterans. They replaced one backup catcher with another. At best, the moves they made leave the Marlins back where they started. Miami has a tantalizing young offensive core that’s only getting better, but the starting pitching is not there. Unless we see a return to form from Volquez and Locke, another third-place finish seems likely.

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