In conjunction with this post, Darragh McDonald is holding a Marlins-centric chat on 10-26-23 at 3:15 pm Central. Click here to ask a question in advance.
The Marlins made the postseason in 2023, their first time in the playoffs of a full season since 2003. But the good news stopped there. They were quickly swept by the Phillies, then their ace announced that he underwent Tommy John surgery. This was followed by general manager Kim Ng stepping aside after disagreements with chairman Bruce Sherman.
1B Josh Bell can opt out of $16.5MM salary
OF/DH Jorge Soler can opt out of $13MM salary
Club holds $10.5MM club option on RHP Johnny Cueto with $2.5MM buyout
Clubs holds $9MM club option on RHP Matt Barnes with $2.25MM buyout ($8MM option increased to $9MM when Barnes was traded, per Associated Press)
Club holds $3.625MM club option on IF/OF Jon Berti with $25K buyout (Berti can be retained via arbitration even if option is declined)
2024 financial commitments (assuming Berti’s option is the only one exercised): $24.625MM
Total future commitments: $107.625MM*
* Includes $30MM owed to Yankees as part of Giancarlo Stanton deal, to be paid from 2026-2028
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
Non-tender candidates: Stallings, Hampson, Davis
The Marlins went 84-78 in 2023, just enough to squeeze into the Wild Card picture during the final weekend of the season. It would be fair to wonder whether the club was actually as good as that record would indicate. Their run differential was -57, which would be more in line with a 75-win club. Despite allowing more runs than they scored by a significant margin, they succeeded by going 33-14 in one-run games, a difficult tightrope to walk for an extended period of time.
Whether you think the club deserved their record or not, they will be challenged just to stay at that level. Sandy Alcantara required Tommy John surgery at the end of the season and will now miss the entire 2024 campaign. He wasn’t quite in his previous Cy Young-winning form in 2023, but the Marlins are nonetheless worse off without him.
There will likely be losses in the lineup as well. Each of Jorge Soler and Josh Bell have upcoming opt-outs that allow them to return to free agency. Soler’s deal originally had a $9MM salary for 2024 but he upped that to $13MM via plate appearance escalators. He hit 36 home runs this year and walked in 11.4% of his plate appearances, leading to a wRC+ of 126. Even though he’s not a strong defender, he should be able to parlay that platform into a strong multi-year deal. Whoever is in charge of the Miami front office will then have to decide whether to extend a qualifying offer to Soler, with this year’s QO likely to be around $20.5MM. If they decide to make that offer, he would be a borderline candidate to accept, but it may not be possible with the club’s financials. More on that later.
As for Bell, his season wasn’t quite as potent as Soler’s, but he finished strong. He hit .233/.318/.383 for the Guardians but then .270/.338/.480 after being traded to the Marlins. He is ineligible to receive a qualifying offer because of that trade. Given that, and the weak market for impact bats, he may be able to leave that $16.5MM on the table and find a multi-year deal of some kind.
Chairman Bruce Sherman will first have to find someone to navigate this, with general manager Kim Ng deciding not to trigger her end of a mutual option. It was reported that she did so because Sherman planned to hire a president of baseball operations to work above her, in addition to reported disagreements about some other staff decisions. Given that reporting, it’s possible he has someone in mind, but few details have been leaked about the front office search.
That makes it somewhat difficult to project what the winter plans are, but there will be some early decisions to be made, whether someone has been hired or not. The Soler QO decision is the only challenging one, however, as the others are fairly straightforward. Both Johnny Cueto and Matt Barnes had injury problems and poor results when on the field, so their options will be bought out. Jon Berti just had his second straight season of managing to produce more than 2 WAR in a utility role, so his option should be picked up. He can be retained via arbitration even if it’s not.
But after that, there will be bigger choices to be made about the club’s path forward. In terms of the financials, the 2023 Opening Day payroll of $93MM was the highest of the Sherman era, according to data at Cot’s Baseball Contracts. They are currently projected for a budget of $103MM next year, per Roster Resource. If Soler and Bell opt out and a couple members of the arb class are non-tendered, that number will drop down to around $70MM.
That will give the club some money to spend, but they will have to replace two key bats from the lineup. The Marlins scored 666 runs in 2023, better than just four clubs, while their wRC+ of 94 was better than just 10. With Soler and Bell perhaps set to become free agents, the Fish will need to find ways to add offense just to break even. Giving a qualifying offer to Soler risks tying up $20.5MM in one player when they have multiple needs to address.
In recent years, the focus has been on the Miami pitching staff and how it could be parlayed into an offensive upgrade. That may be a little trickier now that the club already made a significant move, flipping Pablo López and prospects to the Twins for Luis Arraez prior to 2023. With Alcantara’s surgery and trade of prospect Jake Eder, the rotation surplus doesn’t seem quite as robust as it did a year ago.
There is still a strong foundation there, with Jesús Luzardo, Eury Pérez and Braxton Garrett giving the club a strong front three, but it gets shaky after that. Trevor Rogers was excellent in 2021 but struggled in 2022 and then missed most of 2023 due to injury. Edward Cabrera has flashed a tantalizing strikeout-groundout combo at times but the walks have become a serious concern. Former first-round pick Max Meyer underwent Tommy John surgery in August of 2022 and missed all of 2023. Ryan Weathers, a former first-round pick of the Padres, has a 5.88 ERA in his major league career thus far. Sixto Sánchez was once a highly-touted prospect but has been limited to just one inning of minor league work in the past three seasons and is now out of options.
After the López trade in the last offseason, the Marlins pivoted to grab Cueto from free agency. Perhaps they find someone to trade in this group and try a similar path this winter. Cabrera is now out of options and could be plausibly flipped to a rebuilding club with the ability to be patient with his development, but that would likely leave the Marlins looking for at least one free agent starter, as well as relying on Rogers or Meyer to be healthy and effective.
If the Marlins look to add offense via free agency, catcher would be one obvious target. Jacob Stallings hit .210/.287/.290 over the past two seasons after coming over from the Pirates in a trade. Nick Fortes took over as the primary backstop in 2023. He didn’t hit much either but his defensive grades were generally strong. With Stallings about to turn 34 and set for an arbitration raise, it seems fair to expect the club to move on. Fortes is still is in his pre-arbitration years and can act as a cheap glove-first part of a catching tandem.
The free agent options aren’t amazing, but they are certainly more enticing than Stallings. Gary Sánchez had a strong second half with the Padres, hitting 19 home runs in 75 games, but should still be affordable. In 2023, he had to settle for minor league deals with the Giants and Mets. The latter selected his contract but designated him for assignment less than a week later. A waiver claim by the Padres gave him the chance to launch those 19 home runs and raise his free agent stock, but his season was ended by a wrist fracture in September, which could give some clubs pause.
Mitch Garver would be an excellent fit as a bat-first catcher, combining with Fortes behind the plate. But he hit well enough in 2023, including for the Rangers in the playoffs, that they may give him the qualifying offer. For an oft-injured catcher going into his age-33 season, it would be tough for him to walk away from over $20MM.
A player with a similar profile is Tom Murphy. He’s only been able to play 315 games dating back to the 2015 season due to various injuries, but he generally hits well when he’s in there. In 2023, he served as backup to Cal Raleigh of the Mariners, hitting eight home runs in just 47 games before a thumb sprain ended his season in August.
The Marlins could also look for an upgrade at first base, with Bell maybe opting out, Garrett Cooper having been traded and Yuli Gurriel now a free agent. Giving Bell a new contract would be one option, but the free agent market also features Rhys Hoskins, Brandon Belt, Carlos Santana and others. The club almost signed Justin Turner last winter and he is likely to end up triggering his own opt-out. But many of the available options are veterans best suited to a part-time role, also spending significant time at designated hitter. Hoskins is one of the younger ones in the group but he missed all of 2023 after tearing his ACL in the spring. Players like Rowdy Tellez and Dominic Smith could wind up non-tendered by their current clubs. Pete Alonso is the crown jewel of theoretical trade candidates but it’s hard to imagine him going to a division rival.
At the other infield positions, Luis Arraez should be back at second base and Jake Burger at third. Neither is an excellent defender but they both had strong seasons at the plate and the Marlins need their bats in the lineup. Shortstop is wide open at the moment, with Joey Wendle having struggled and now a free agent anyway. Berti and Garrett Hampson are still on the roster but better suited to utility roles than a full-time shortstop gig. Jacob Amaya struggled in his major league debut and had a subpar season in Triple-A.
Finding an everyday shortstop this winter won’t be easy. The free agent market doesn’t really have a viable option unless the White Sox turn down their option on Tim Anderson. But even then, he’s coming off a horrible season in 2023 where he had a .286 on-base percentage and just one home run. The trade market could theoretically feature names like Willy Adames, Ha-Seong Kim or Tommy Edman, but their respective clubs will undoubtedly set high asking prices given the weak free agent class.
The outfield picture looks a bit better, with Jazz Chisholm Jr. in center, flanked by Bryan De La Cruz and Jesús Sánchez. With Soler opting out, there would be room to add someone and perhaps push De La Cruz into a fourth outfielder/designated hitter role, but the club also has Avisaíl García still on the roster. His past two seasons have been disasters, with injuries and poor performance making him a sub-replacement contributor. But if the club thinks it can fit another outfielder into the mix, they could perhaps make sense for Adam Duvall, Tommy Pham or Jason Heyward.
The bullpen is losing David Robertson and Matt Moore to free agency, but they were midseason pickups anyway. Overall, the group is still strong, with four viable left-handers in the bullpen. Left-handed relief tends to always be in demand, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Marlins call around to see if they can exchange one of Tanner Scott, Andrew Nardi, A.J. Puk or Steven Okert for offensive help.
Whoever is eventually hired to make the baseball decisions in Miami will have quite a to-do list. The club’s offense was fairly tepid in 2023 and could see Bell and Soler depart in the coming weeks. The Fish could use upgrades at catcher, first base, shortstop and perhaps an outfield corner, and likely won’t have a ton of money available for those pursuits. Amid all of that, the National League East is in strong shape, as Atlanta and Philadelphia are two of the best clubs in the league. The Mets had a down year in 2023 but have the resources to bounce back quickly and the Nationals will be emerging from their rebuild eventually. Although the Marlins are fresh off a postseason berth, there are plenty of questions and we don’t currently know who will be providing the answers.