FanGraphs has a lovely depth charts page that uses statistics from a well-regarded projection system and playing time estimates to project each team’s 2014 performance. It’s an imperfect methodology that relies on an oversimplified stat (WAR), a projection system that includes some bias, and subjective guesstimates about playing time. But despite its shortcomings, it remains a useful tool for quick and dirty analysis.
Though that useful tool projects just a 69-win season from the Marlins, there are more than a few reasons for fans to be cautiously optimistic about the 2014 squad. This club is not a playoff contender, but could be surprisingly decent if everything comes together.
To date, the club’s major offseason additions are Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones, Rafael Furcal, Casey McGehee and Carter Capps. The Marlins also signed Jordany Valdespin and re-signed Kevin Slowey to minor league contracts. Of the major additions, all four position players are primed to start. Capps will probably fill a late-inning role in the bullpen. The only significant loss was Logan Morrison, who was dealt for Capps.
Saltalamacchia represents a nice boost over the Marlins’ previous duo of Rob Brantly and Jeff Mathis. That pairing performed substantially below replacement level. With pitch framing considered, they performed at between two and three wins below replacement level. Saltalamacchia was worth roughly three and a half wins last season.
Unfortunately for the Marlins, his breakout batting performance was probably a fluke. He posted an abnormally high BABIP of .372 that was supported by an equally high 28 percent line drive rate. Assuming both rates regress, he’ll return to being a roughly league average hitter with good pop and little else to recommend him.
Even with the expected regression, Saltalamacchia’s presence in the middle of the lineup should be a boon. This is a team that opened with Placido Polanco batting cleanup last season. The Saltalamacchia signing could be a four- to six-win upgrade over last season.
The other additions offer less impact. Capps is a nice reliever who could one day mature into a major league closer or setup man. He throws hard, strikes out a lot of batters, walks a few too many, and had a problem with home runs last season. Better command and control with a normal home run rate would make him a pretty useful reliever.
Jones will replace Morrison as the club’s first baseman. Both players struggled in 2013, although Jones has a longer record of success. He’s entering his age 33 season, so a rebound is far from guaranteed. Furcal missed all of 2013 and will push the replacement level Donovan Solano to the bench. Furcal’s shortstop defense received poor grades in 2011 and 2012, but the transition from shortstop to second base usually comes with a big boost in defensive value.
McGehee returns to the U.S. after one season in Japan. He hit .292/.376/.515 with 28 home runs for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. He hasn’t had a positive season in the majors since 2010, but he’s displacing a third base combination of Polanco and Greg Dobbs that performed below replacement level last season.
The outfield could be a source of pride, with Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna the presumed starters. Stanton has made a habit of missing time in his young career, and he’s perilously close to earning the injury-prone label. A full season from Stanton in the middle of the Marlins order would be a huge boon to their run production. With Saltalamacchia now in the fold, he may see more pitches to hit. Only Pablo Sandoval saw fewer pitches in the strike zone and only Joey Votto received fewer first-pitch strikes.
Yelich should also help by hitting in front of Stanton. He was the Marlins’ top prospect before they got aggressive and promoted him from Double-A last season. He’s entering his age-22 season and will likely experience growing pains in his sophomore season. That said, he’s a tool shed who has an adequate bat now and plenty of room for growth. A full season of Yelich should be an upgrade over the time given to players like Justin Ruggiano, Chris Coghlan and Juan Pierre.
Like Yelich, Ozuna was aggressively promoted from Double-A last season. He’ll be 23 this season and doesn’t come with the same upside as Yelich. He could mature into a solid corner outfielder, but for now he’s a second division starter. Different defensive measures were a big fan of his play last season, so he could provide value in the field while his bat matures. Either way, when the bar is set at replacement level, it’s not necessary to jump very high.
The rotation is the club’s strongest feature. It’s young, talented, and surprisingly deep. Jose Fernandez will likely be cut loose for a full season, while Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez and Jacob Turner should provide a strong core.
The fifth spot will be a battle among Slowey, Brian Flynn, Tom Koehler and Brad Hand. Prospects Justin Nicolino and Andrew Heaney are also nearing major league readiness. In many ways, it is the same unit that performed adequately last season, but this bunch has the potential to be even tougher on opponents.
Last season, the pitching was the difference between the Marlins and the Astros. With better fielders, a better catcher, and another year of growth for the youngsters, the rotation could take another step forward in 2014. FanGraphs’ depth chart projects 10 wins above replacement from the starting pitchers, which is a slight improvement on last season. However, improved all-around defense alone could help boost that number.
At the end of the day, the Marlins don’t look like a playoff contender. Despite bringing in veterans to patch the many holes in the infield, that unit probably won’t outperform replacement level by a significant amount. The outfield will be exciting but perhaps not reliable given Stanton’s injury history and the youth of the other options. If the Marlins do manage to more than 70 games this season, they can thank their starting staff.