Much has been made of the focus the Marlins should have on improving their offense if they want to take the next step from promising young team to playoff contender. The seeds of such a plan were laid in 2019, when the Marlins swapped elite pitching prospect Zac Gallen for a similarly highly touted position player in Jazz Chisholm Jr. There is a chance that both teams could end up being satisfied with the results of that trade, which is rare in any scenario.
Yet, two seasons later, the Marlins still have a clear organizational strength in pitching. On the MLB Pipeline Marlins Top Prospects List, five of the top seven Marlins prospects are pitchers. That list does not include young pitchers who have already made a notable impact in the Majors, such as Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez, and Trevor Rogers. Compared to the position players, where only Chisholm has emerged as a truly promising young position player, the Marlins have a huge imbalance in their organization.
This is not necessarily a problem, as great teams have been and will continue to be built on pitching. However, no Major League team is competing for a title when ranked in the bottom of the league in most offensive categories. That was the case for the 2021 Marlins, who ranked 13th in runs allowed, but 29th in runs scored.
Truly, all runs are created equally though. A run saved is just as valuable as a run earned, and a ranking of thirteenth in runs allowed shows that the Marlins do have some room for improvement in that regard. The team ranked seventh in the Majors in Defensive Runs Saved, according to Fangraphs. However, out of those 55 runs saved, 24 came from four prominent Marlins who are no longer on the team (Adam Duvall, Lewis Brinson, Magneuris Sierra, and Sandy Leon). Small sample defensive stats are known for being untrustworthy as well, and it is worth noting that Miami only placed 18th in MLB in Statcast’s Outs Above Average measure. So, while the obvious fix may be to acquire big sluggers who can boost the Marlins offense, finding defensive improvements could be the better bargain.
It seems like the Marlins front office could be thinking along these same lines based on their pre-lockout acquisitions. In a trade of organizational pitching depth for a position player, Miami managed to land Pittsburgh’s Jacob Stallings to be their new starting backstop in 2022. The 2021 Gold Glove winner was deserving of the award, with a +21 DRS and +8.8 in framing runs saved. Those are elite defensive statistics, and Marlins pitchers should love throwing to Stallings with all the extra strikes he can get for them. Moreover, Stallings represents a massive upgrade from last season when no Marlins catcher saved over 2.4 runs via framing.
Stallings remains under team control for three more seasons, which makes him a valuable and cost-effective piece for the Marlins. A starting catcher who can hold his own with the bat, as shown by Stallings’ .246/.335/.369 and 95 wRC+ in 2021, has not been seen in Miami since JT Realmuto was traded. Don Mattingly should be able to pencil his name into the lineup and not think twice about it.
Another defensive improvement was also made in the Avisail Garcia signing. While the acquisition is certainly being made with the hope that Garcia’s big bat will thump in the middle of the Miami lineup, his glove is also nothing to scoff at. Garcia was +8 in right field for Milwaukee last season. Defensive metrics have not always been as kind to Garcia, and he could have benefited from the great range of fellow Brewers Jackie Bradley Jr. and Lorenzo Cain. However, as long as Garcia can hold his own it should prevent the Marlins from playing less worthy outfielders out of position, as they were forced to do with Garrett Cooper and Jorge Alfaro in the past.
So, come the end of this lockout, I will be looking to see if the Marlins can continue to make defensive improvements that will benefit the pitching staff. Statcast’s wOBA on contact measures the quality of contact that opponents generate against Marlins pitching. Their .361 wOBA on contact was a respectable ninth in the league, while their expected wOBA on contact of .365 shows that Marlins fielders did an adequate job of turning outs into runs. However, compare it to an elite defensive team in the Cardinals. The Cards defense turned an expected wOBA on contact of .365 into a .332 actual wOBA on contact. So, their pitchers were performing similarly to the Marlins squad, but the defense was making the difference.
The Marlins and Cardinals would make a ton of sense as potential trade partners. St. Louis has great defenders all around the diamond, but still lacks starting pitching depth even after signing Steven Matz to a multi-year contract. The framework of a deal could include elite defensive centerfielder Harrison Bader and the recently benched Paul DeJong. Both are under team control for multiple seasons at reasonable rates, making them incredibly valuable. It would take a sizable package in return, but both Bader and DeJong would represent defensive upgrades that would also fortify Miami’s lineup.
If a DH is added into the NL, then signing Kyle Schwarber or Nicholas Castellanos would make a ton of sense for Miami. It would provide a much-needed slugger without having to play a poor fielder. Ideally, that ends up being the scenario, and then the Marlins can focus on improving their defense instead of just looking for bats.
One potential position to pursue could be up the middle defense. Statcast’s OAA measure did not view Jazz Chisholm or Miguel Rojas favorably, and the measurement factors in range considerably. Both rated better by DRS, which is worth noting, but an improvement could at least be made in finding an adequate backup for those middle infield positions. Isan Diaz cost the team -7 OAA, and was also dreadful with the bat. Miami could hope to let him develop further in AAA, while finding a stopgap to handle the position in 2021. Joey Wendle should be able to help in this area, although he played more at third base last season.
All in all, when examining the Marlins roster as currently constructed, it is clear that they have already made some defensive upgrades. Garcia, Stallings, and Wendle will all be able to contribute and turn more balls in play into outs for their pitchers. This will be vital as the Marlins try to develop a run suppression machine through their plethora of elite pitching prospects. More can be done however, beyond just focusing on adding offense for the rest of the offseason.
Giving Lewin Diaz more playing time would be another way to further improve the defense, although Mattingly will have to weigh that against keeping the big bats of Jesus Aguilar or Cooper in the lineup. Another area for defensive improvement the team has already considered is center field, where we know the Marlins were in the bidding for bringing back Starling Marte. Clearly a weak spot in the current depth chart, a solution may have to be found on the trade market. However, a monumental move for a star like the Orioles’ Cedric Mullins, or the aforementioned Bader, would be a great way to improve on both offense and defense.
The Cardinals were carried by their great defense into the postseason in 2021, showing just how much a great defense can save runs for their pitchers. The Marlins should hope to do the same in 2022. With the highest ground ball percentage allowed in baseball last year, Miami will need infielders who have the range to make those plays.