The Marlins are an underrated club. Post-Chen, NEIFI has them at 82.0 wins. Doing nothing as of yet to replace Cespedes, the Mets are not as far ahead as one may expect. The Nationals are strong, but this is an underwhelming division; the Marlins can’t be written off as they sit now, and are a stone’s-throw away from being serious players.
What makes the Marlins so good? Nothing, as a matter of fact. It’s mostly about being right around or just above the NL team-average in each facet—offense, starting pitching, defense, bullpen (which is a shockingly low bar to cross in the NL these days). Also, a schedule with a fortuitous helping of the Phillies and Braves, and no juggernaut (CHC, LAD) balancing the division out. Given the lack of any superlative strengths, it is perhaps understandable that the Marlins moderate competitiveness would be under the radar.
Something else is amazing. The Marlins have less obstacles between themselves and contention than perhaps any club not already in a strong position. That’s an exceedingly polite phrasing; the more blunt truth is, the Marlins have no excuse for not being in a far better position than they sit today. No, frugality isn’t to blame, either.
Using NEIFI’s projections we calculated, for each player on each team’s depth chart, his wins below the halfway point between replacement level and average (e.g. for position players, average is .0036 WAR/PA—2.16 WAR per 600 PA, so we calculated wins below the .0018 WAR/PA baseline, zeroing out everyone who clears the baseline of course). Add up these numbers and we get a measure of the number of wins each team is losing due to the presence of garbage on the roster. To restate; we’re measuring the number of wins each team would gain if they replaced all the talent on their roster beneath this threshold—the halfway point between a lg-avg player and a replacement level player—with talent of that caliber. If they just had fairly strong bench players replacing the expected playing time of all players who fell beneath that level, whether the players being replaced are starters or bench players themselves.
The logic here is that a good front office should be able to find enough cheap/free talent to never go into a season with a true gaping wound (such as a projected 0.3 WAR/season player projected to start), or the presence of (just for example) -0.4 WAR/season players on your bench instead of 0.4 WAR/season. These things add up greatly, and teams have much more ability to stack their roster this way than by going out and buying/trading for 3.5-win studs.
Of course there’s nothing magical about the halfway point between RL and lg-avg. Another baseline could have been chosen. However, this level seems to work well. Choose a lower baseline and the differences between teams get too small to be of much interest; choose a higher baseline and you’re moving closer to just measuring overall team quality, which isn’t the goal here. Here’s what the numbers look like for each team, by division:
AL East: TBA 0.58, BOS 0.94, NYA 1.01, TOR 1.13, BAL 3.67
Not surprising that the Rays look excellent here. And the Orioles are notorious for having giant holes on their roster.
AL Central: CLE 0.40, MIN 1.85, KC 2.63, DET 2.68, CHA 4.72
Again, not surprising. The White Sox, like the Orioles, have a long legacy of this sort of nonsense. And this is a sort of hidden place in which the Indians are good. Also, the clear majority of the Twins’ score here (1.21 of the 1.85) is accounted for by Kurt Suzuki, who is the single most toxic presence on any big league roster today. Can’t frame, can’t throw, can’t hit. This guy has a job how, exactly?
AL West: OAK 0.38, TEX 1.05, HOU 1.15, SEA 1.47, LAA 1.51
Again, not surprising.
NL East: NYN 0.67, WSH 0.92, MIA 3.28, ATL 5.15, PHI 5.84
Here’s the beef with the Marlins. ATL and PHI are just horrible teams period, of course their numbers are really high here, but the Marlins… 3.28 wins for an above-.500 team is embarrassing, and very costly.
NL Central: MIL 0.30, STL 1.52, CHN 1.62, CIN 2.78, PIT 3.42
The Brewers have had a magical offseason in the most subtle of ways. The Pirates, though… that’s ugly. Really ugly. Interestingly, absolutely no one is talking about it. This is a team that everyone thinks of as a contender, and an organization that most people consider pretty smart, and they essentially haven’t bothered to assemble any position player depth whatsoever. Then there’s the rotation. NEIFI likes Niese far less than other projection systems, and of course would argue our reasoning is correct, but even if we accept Niese as a reasonable solution, they still only have 5 acceptable SP, and that’s counting Glasnow, who of course they don’t want to bring up to MLB just yet. It’s been a weird asleep-at-the-wheel offseason in Pittsburgh.
NL West: LAN 0.11, SFN 1.49, SDN 2.99, COL 4.31, ARI 4.48
If you’re wondering, the Dodgers’ score is entirely because of Carl Crawford, if not for him they’d have a perfect 0.00. Seeing the Rockies and Diamondbacks with numbers that bad is entirely predictable.
Anyway, the AL average is 1.68, NL average is 2.59. Not surprising that there’s a big gap between leagues, obviously—the AL-NL talent gap at current is simply massive.
Going through this exercise in discussion of the Marlins provided an unexpected benefit. This simple metric for measuring depth/detecting black holes has turned out to be quite possibly the most informative metric for assessing front office competence that may exist. Anything else one can think of… total player surplus values, team WAR divided by payroll, etc… has all kinds of randomness (or worse, biases) in it.
But this? This is not random, nor is it biased. This is a remarkably pure assessment of the extent to which each team cares about actually extracting value from all 25 roster spots. This is about depth, free talent, creativity, and all the other values that NEIFI holds dear, and would be the first hallmark of a sabermetrically competent team. It makes a hell of a difference.
This isn’t a complete measure of front office competence, obviously, because it doesn’t distinguish between a team full of 1.5-WAR guys and a team full of 3-WAR guys (which, in a nutshell, is the present difference between the Brewers and the Dodgers). It is, however, a very significant piece of the puzzle, and it’s the piece most directly under the FO’s control.
The Marlins (and also the Pirates) are leaving a great deal on the table here. With merely average depth, they’d vault from fringe-contenders to quite serious ones. It’s the most solvable issue a contending organization faces.