The National League Wild Card race is hardly a race at all. It feels as though the teams vying for the playoffs’ back door don’t actually want to claim the prize, struggling as the contenders have in recent months.
There is another team on the outside of that cohort or recent playoff squads, something of a darkhorse that sits just 2.5 games out of the Wild Card slots. A team that lost 100 games last year, the Miami Marlins. They sat in first place in the NL East as recently as June 8th, only to slip well below .500 in July. They’re a puzzle, an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a blood orange.
Are the Marlins good? Are they a legit Wild Card contender? Maybe not. One thing that isn’t up for debate is the strongest part of this Marlins team – their outfield is one of the best in baseball and could stay that way for a long while.
Not only is the Marlins outfield one of the best in the game, it’s also one of the youngest. Only five players have outfield starts for them this year: Giancarlo Stanton (24), Christian Yelich (22), Marcell Ozuna, (23), Jake Marisnick (23), and Reed Johnson (37). One of these things is not like the others, though that one thing only has 152 plate appearances in 2014. Marisnick went to the Astros in a deadline day trade that brought Jarred Cosart to South Florida.
The Marlins are young and they are also good, very good. The Marlins outfielders rank third in baseball with a collective 121 wRC+ and are the seventh-most valuable outfield by WAR (second by rWAR.) Stanton is an MVP candidate in the National League, showcasing the unbelievable power while staying healthy for the first time since 2011. He cut his strikeouts to a career low rate (25.5%) while still walking as much as ever, though his 20 intentional walks inflate his rate stats slightly. His 32 home runs lead the league and his 163 wRC+ is a career high and in a dead heat for best in the NL.
Beyond his home run highlights, Stanton turns heads in the field as well. His big body gets around just fine, netting him eight Defensive Runs Saved, though UZR rates his play as average. According to Inside Edge, his ability to track down tougher balls puts him in the upper levels of regular right fielders.
Stanton is the known commodity, the Marlin we all know best. Despite not getting nearly as much publicity as some other teams trumpeting a player development model, it is the immediate and overwhelming success of Christian Yelich that suggests Sports Illustrated misfired on their 2017 World Series prediction.
Yelich pings the “pure hitter” radar, with a level swing and ability to spray the ball from foul line to foul line. His rail-thin build isn’t producing much extra base pop right now, yet Yelich owns a .284/.361/.421 line this year, with 16 steals and nine home runs, good for a 121 wRC+.
Like Stanton, Yelich looks the part in the field, saving nine runs via DRS and +10 by UZR. He makes all the plays and uses his legs to track down extra outs, though he doesn’t boast a strong throwing arm. Yelich’s age-22 season figures to produce 4 WAR, all without the benefit of much extra base power.
With Yelich in left and Stanton in right, the Marlins all but handed the center fielder’s job to Marcell Ozuna for the foreseeable future when they moved Marisnick. Ozuna might not be as polished or powerful as the players flanking him, but he’s another solid to above-average major leaguer making the minimum and producing after very little seasoning in the minor leagues (just 47 plate appearances above Double-A).
Ozuna probably doesn’t walk enough and might strike out too much, but he claims nice pop and plays at least a passable center field in an enormous ballpark. His 17 home runs this season place him fifth among qualified center fielders, his ISO seventh. Even if his ceiling isn’t as high as that of his teammates, he remains a valued contributor to this Marlins team and a piece they can count on for cheap production in the future.
There is an elephant in this room, of course. As great as the Marlins outfield looks right now and as much promise as it holds for the future, the spectre of a Giancarlo Stanton trade hangs over the proceedings. Adding an MVP-calibre season on top of his already strong arbitration case means things are dicey in Lorialand, as his arb reward for 2015 — coupled with the unlikelihood of a long term extension — could push him beyond the means of the frugal Florida franchise, though the front office said all the right things recently.
Sadly, nothing is ever simple for Marlins fans. Enjoy this exciting, promising outfield and it’s playoff push now, it could all disappear by the Winter Meetings. The Marlins are always going to be the Marlins, so the depressing trade options feels all but inevitable, with the emergence of Yelich and Ozuna perhaps fueling a belief they can compete without Stanton.
Should they buck the trend, should they dig in, spend some money and a make some key improvements, they might have the makings of a very good club next season. A club ready to challenge the Braves and Nats for the NL East crown and one that might use their pitching depth to bolster an otherwise weak infield. The Marlins have options. Hey, uncertainty is an option too, right?
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