With Opening Day less than three weeks away, free agents have started to sign smaller-than-expected contracts just to ensure they have a job for 2018. Mike Moustakas returned to the Kansas City Royals on a sweetheart one-year, $6.5 million contract while Lance Lynn had to settle for a one-year, $12 million deal with the Minnesota Twins.

At some point soon the still-unsigned Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb, two starters who could improve basically any rotation, may have to take a smaller than expected one-year contract as well. And in an alternate baseball universe, the Miami Marlins would’ve been in perfect position to capitalize, potentially pushing them in the postseason race.

A season ago the Marlins went 77-85 and finished 10 games back of the second wild-card spot, though it was the pitching staff that kept the team out of contention, not the offense. Miami finished fifth in the National League in runs scored per game (4.80) and 13th in runs allowed per game (5.07). The starting rotation in particular was a weak spot. Their 2017 ranks:

  • ERA: 5.12 (26th)
  • WHIP: 1.45 (26th)
  • WAR: +3.9 (28th)

“I wanted us to go forward and advance with the pitching staff. I thought our lineup was legit,” said reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton during his introductory press conference with the New York Yankees. “We needed to add rather than subtract. The way they wanted to go was subtract.”

The Bruce Sherman/Derek Jeter-led ownership group opted to subtract in an effort to get the club’s debt under control. Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Dee Gordon were all traded away. As a result, the Marlins will open 2018 with an estimated $89.8 million payroll, down from $115.4 million on Opening Day last year.

MLB: Miami Marlins-Press Conference

Derek Jeter and the Marlins ownership group blew up the roster this winter. USATSI

Had the Sherman/Jeter group not opted to tear things down, and instead invest a little more money in the ball club, the Marlins would’ve been in great position to jump in on the slow-moving free-agent market. Outbidding the Twins to sign Lynn to a one-year deal in that $12 million range — it’s not as easy as matching the contract and getting him, of course — would’ve gone a long way to improving the rotation. Cobb is still sitting out there and may sign for a similar price.

It’s not only the big names, however. Consider some of the free-agent pitchers who signed deals worth no more than $8 million per season this winter. These are second tier guys the Marlins could’ve targeted had they not torn things down:

This is the other thing: The Marlins still could’ve followed through on some of their cost-saving trades and added some pitching without a huge payroll increase. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, Miami still makes the Stanton trade (for Starlin Castro and two prospects) and Gordon trade (for three prospects). Those deals would’ve knocked $25 million off the payroll, or enough to sign, say, Lynn and Chacin and Miley.

Replacing Stanton with Jon Jay — Jay was born and raised (and went to college) in Miami, and presumably would have been open to playing at home — who inked a one-year deal worth $3 million with the Royals last week, would’ve replaced some of the lost offense and given the club a viable leadoff hitter. The lineup post-Stanton and Gordon could’ve looked like this:

  1. LF Jon Jay
  2. C J.T. Realmuto
  3. CF Christian Yelich
  4. RF Marcell Ozuna
  5. 1B Justin Bour
  6. 2B Starlin Castro
  7. 3B Martin Prado
  8. SS J.T. Riddle
  9. Pitcher

Not as fearsome as it would’ve been with Stanton, but I think you can project that lineup to be above-average in the National League, especially if Prado is able to stay on the field. Utility man Derek Dietrich would remain on the bench as a high-end reserve as well, so there is some depth behind the regulars.

As for the rotation, righty Jose Urena was named the Opening Day starter on Saturday, according to MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro. Look what adding Lynn, Miley, and Chacin would do the current group based on 2018 ZiPS projections:

Actual Rotation Alternate Universe Rotation

1. Jose Urena (+0.6 WAR)

1. Lance Lynn (+2.1 WAR)

2. Dan Straily (+0.6 WAR)

2. Wade Miley (+1.7 WAR)

3. Justin Nicolino (+0.5 WAR)

3. Jhoulys Chacin (+1.4 WAR)

4. Odrisamer Despaigne (+0.5 WAR)

4. Jose Urena (+0.6 WAR)

5. Dillon Peters (+1.0 WAR)

5. Dan Straily (+0.6 WAR)

Pretty significant upgrades. Lynn, Miley, and Chacin would push Despaigne, Nicolino, and Peters into depth roles — Peters is slated to open the season as the fifth starter, though ZiPS likes him more than Despaigne and Nicolino — and of course they would be needed at some point. No team gets through the season using only five starters. Teams are lucky if they use only six or seven starters these days.

In a perfect world, the new ownership group would’ve come in, invested some money in a club with a strong young core, and boosted the pitching staff to support a strong lineup. Keep Stanton, keep Gordon, add pitching. That would’ve been the ideal Marlins offseason. Take advantage of this much slower than expected free-agent market and get some bargains. Worst case scenario is it doesn’t work, Lynn, Miley, and Chacin become trade chips, and the Marlins tear things down and wind up where they are right now. 

Instead, the Sherman/Jeter group tore things down right away, moving Gordon and Stanton before the Winter Meetings in December. Their first order of business was unloading as much money as possible in hope of putting the club in a better position financially going forward. And MLB knew that as well. MLB and the other 29 owners knew the Sherman/Jeter group would rip the team apart when they approved the sale last year. They still let it happen.

Look, it’s easy to sit here and play armchair GM, and say this team should sign this guy and that guy. It’s never that easy though. I just can’t help but look at the team the Marlins had last year, with the game’s best outfield and a solid infield, and think they were a few pitching additions away from contending (for a wild-card spot, most likely) in 2018. The free-agent market fell apart this year, leaving quality players scrounging for cheap one-year contracts. The Marlins, maybe more so than any other team, could’ve gotten the help they needed this winter at an affordable price.