Miami: An Outfield in Crisis

Well, maybe it’s not so bad. In fantasy baseball, at least, most of the Marlins’ outfielders are owned in deep leagues. Juan Pierre might even be owned in some mixed leagues for his steals. At least when he goes up against the catchers from Tampa, San Diego, Anaheim, either Chicago, and Boston. And maybe it’s not that bad in real life either: the team has more than two wins from the outfield squad, and that’s good for 18th in the league.

But the way that outfield has been managed, and the type of talent that could be on the way, means that the Marlins outfield still represents some sort of crisis. In that it is in flux, and there’s opportunity here if the chips fall a certain way.

Only two of the Marlins outfielders are qualified for the batting title, and combined they’re hitting around the Mendoza Line. But that’s just batting average. Justin Ruggiano has eight homers and seven steals, and Juan Pierre has 16 stolen bases in his old age. But, even with the use of these two players, you can see that the team is not committed to any one of their current outfielders.

The idea at the beginning of the year was that Justin Ruggiano and Chris Coghlan would platoon, and since Ruggiano was a righty, that was terrible for his fantasy value. By April third, Ruggiano was playing every day. Then, while hitting .191 in May, and doing poorly against left-handers by batting average (.197 this year), he started to lose playing time against tough righties. He was a healthy scratch against Mat Latos, Brandon McCarthy, and … Tyler Cloyd? He’s either sat or completely missed four of the Marlins’ seven games in June, too. With his power and patience, he’s still above league average against lefties (102 wRC+), but the batting average on balls in play is now .256, and that’s meant batting averages around the mendoza line in all splits.

That’s opened the door for Chris Coghlan‘s return. Coghlan has started five of the Marlins’ seven games in June. He’s hitting over .300 since May started. Of course, Ruggiano has Coghlan beat in every phase of the game other than batting average, but seemingly, that doesn’t matter. On the surface it looks like Coghlan has even righted ship with respect to his platoon splits, since he’s hitting .280+ against lefties this year, but the team isn’t starting him against lefties and he has a .400 BABIP propping up a terrible contact rate against them (26.1% strikeouts). There’s a problem with this arrangement — Coghlan has one home run and no stolen bases. The .277 batting average is okay, but given his .347 BABIP, owners can’t expect more. Still very little reason to own Coghlan outside of “warm body” leagues. And of course now he’s hurt.

Juan Pierre is doing what he does, only worse. He has 16 stolen bases, but he can’t get the batting average up over league average, and league average these days is in the .250s. Part of the problem is that his BABIP against lefties is below .200 since the start of the 2012 season. That could just be a small-sample blip, since Pierre’s career split is nonexistent (86 wRC+ from both sides of the plate), but with a 35-year-old speedster, it’s fair to ask if he should be platooned.

Marcell Ozuna has been lights out in right field. At least when it comes to fantasy stats. He’s hit for average (.331) and has a homer and three stolen bases in a little over a month’s work at the plate (152 plate appearances). Considering his isolated slugging percentage is now .141 and he’s shown an ISO over .200 the last three years in the minor leagues, it’s fair to say he has some power upside remaining. That doesn’t mean he’s without flaws. His 21.1% strikeout rate might be lucky, given his 11.1% swinging strike rate and and some of the bad strikeout rates he’s had in the minor leagues (23.6% career), and if that goes up while his BABIP (.422) goes down, his batting average will suffer greatly. In fact, there isn’t a tough of difference between Ozuna and Ruggiano when it comes to rest-of-season projections in key categories. His ZiPs-projected strikeout rate (26%) and batting average (.255) aren’t functionally different than Ruggiano’s (25.8% and .248 respectively).

Now, with Giancarlo Stanton returning, the team says that they’ll move Marcell Ozuna into center. Ozuna played less than 9% of his minor league games at center, but it looks they aren’t impressed with the Ruggiano/Coghlan platoon. Good news for Ozuna owners, bad news for Ruggiano owners. Coghlan owners weren’t expecting much.

There’s one last name to throw in the mix. Christian Yelich is one of the Marlins’ best prospects, if not their best. He’s striking out a bit much in his first go at Double-A (25.1%), but his .262/.342/.518 line is probably a good week away from spawning “Free Yelich” stories in the local Miami media. Yelich has played more than half of his games in center, this year and career, and is probably a better defender in center field. If he comes up, he may push Ozuna back to a corner to make for a very young and exciting outfield arrangement (full of strikeouts and, likely, bad batting averages). But Yelich is only 21 and has some things to work on. Oh, and 22-year-old Jake Marisnick is the best defensive center fielder of this group, and since this year is his second go-around at Double-A, he has more experience than Yelich. He might even be the next callup in the outfield.

So, yeah, it’s an outfield that’s up in the air. But the announcement that Ozuna would move to center with Stanton’s return might set the tone for the rest of the season. This isn’t a club that wants to win games this year as much as they want to figure out what they’ve got for the future. It isn’t likely that they’ll be able to pump up trade value on a 35-year-old proven speedster like Pierre or an unproven 31-year-old minor league lifer like Justin Ruggiano. Chris Coghlan looks destined for a plug-and-play future, too.

Mixed-leaguers will probably just want to stay away from this squad in the future, unless they can stomach some batting average regression and are intrigued by Ozuna’s power and speed. Cnsidering that Ozuna, Yelich and Marisnick all have poor track records when it comes to contact rate, managers in batting average leagues should be sure not to over-rate the future upsides of their outfielders even in dynasty leagues.

But this isn’t just Stanton & Others. Ozuna, Yelich and Marisnick all have power and speed, and as long as they’re running Pierre out there, he’ll get his 30 stolen bases.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Coghlan and Yelich are both on the DL right now.