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The Marlins are leading the wild card race, and they aren’t going away

The Mets’ slump has opened the door for the Marlins, and here’s why that probably isn’t a fluke.

Colorado Rockies v Miami Marlins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

At one point this season, the Marlins were 3-7 after getting swept by the Braves. There’s a lot going on with that sentence, so take your time. Over the last four weeks, they’ve lost series to the Phillies, Braves, Twins and Diamondbacks, all of whom are comfortably under .500. And if there’s one thing the Marlins have done well all year, it’s lose to their division rivals, going 12-19 against the rest of the NL East. Let’s not even get into the part where one of their best players was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs, how their biggest free-agent signing in years has been a disaster, or how their franchise cornerstone has been lost in a foggy slump for about a month now.

The Marlins have been kind of a mess this year. So allow me to introduce the 2016 Marlins, who are leading the wild card race in the National League.

Of course, the biggest reason the Marlins would make the postseason if the regular season ended today is that the NL is ridiculously stratified, with three teams at the top, a half-dozen teams at the bottom and a scrum of hard-to-evaluate teams in the middle, fighting for the scraps. By the end of the year, it’s unlikely that the two wild card teams will be just over .500. Someone is going to pull away.

That team just might be the Marlins, though. They’ve allowed exactly as many runs as they’ve scored, suggesting that they’re an average team, nothing more or less. But they’re a sleeping megalodon, and they should freak you out. We’ll see how in a game we’ll call, "Why they’re here and how they can get better."

Why they’re here

The Marlins are contending because they’re well-rounded, with a 101 team OPS+ and a 100 ERA+. That’s completely average in both respects, which feeds into the idea that they’re an average team. But they’re enjoying incredible seasons from three likely All-Stars, Jose Fernandez, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. The oldest of the three is Ozuna, who’s 25.

They’re leading the wild card race because of some surprising performances, most notably Derek Dietrich, who’s boosted his on-base percentage by 40 points and tightened up his defense, and Ichiro, who ate the soul of a challenger and had his career extended by 20 years, but that’s about it for the where-did-that-come-from tally. The first thing it makes sense to do with a surprising contender is to look for the players having the best seasons. If the team is being carried by Jeff Mathis, say, because he’s on pace for a 30-30 season, you would be right to be a little skeptical. There are certainly telltale signs when a team’s record is more pyrite than gold,

Other than that, everyone makes sense. Fernandez is an ace because of course he is. Ozuna and Yelich are former top prospects who are emerging from the prospect chrysalis. The bullpen is a strength. Martin Prado is a solid contributor, and Justin Bour’s power didn’t go away. The rotation beyond Fernandez has been a little shaky, doing just a little worse than expected, no flukes there.

Nothing about the successes of the Marlins makes you think there’s another shoe about to drop. Which leads us to the next section.

How they can get better

Hoo boy. Here’s where it gets fun. This is a theory with two parts:

  1. Giancarlo Stanton has hit like a pitcher over his last 30 games, with a 490 OPS and 50 strikeouts in 128 plate appearances
  2. Giancarlo Stanton will not hit like a pitcher all season

The logic is ironclad, don’t even try to poke holes in it. Even if you’re anticipating a little regression from Ozuna or Yelich, it’s all going to be made up when Stanton gets on a hot streak. And he’s going to get on a hot streak. He has to. He simply has to.

Oh, how cruel would it be for the entire Marlins team to exceed offensive expectations under the watch of Barry Bonds, only for Stanton to be irrevocably ruined. What a monkey’s paw wish that would be.

But Giancarlo is coming. You’ll see.

Beyond that, the Marlins should expect better things from several players, not just Stanton. Adeiny Hechavarria was a revelation last year, and he doesn’t need to morph into an All-Star hitter to reclaim that form. He just needs to be vintage Elvis Andrus again.

Wei-Yin Chen is on pace to shatter his career high in home runs allowed, despite moving from Camden Yards to Marlins Park, and even though he’s not grooving more pitches than last year. His velocity is down, but trending upward, and his walks and strikeouts are coming at the same rate as last year, which all suggests something that can be fixed.

Dee Gordon’s suspension is more than half over, and he’ll come back in the middle of August. He’ll probably be wafer-thin and emaciated because, good gravy, if that’s what he looked like with the steroids ... but he’ll still function as a de facto deadline acquisition.

Long article short: When I look at the Marlins, I don’t see a team that’s at the top of the wild card heap because of unsustainable performances and deceptive slights of hand. I see a team that’s in position for a postseason spot despite enduring more misery than a typical team should expect, with easy fixes just around the corner.

The Marlins might have a strong shot at the postseason if Giancarlo Stanton starts hitting well and Wei-Yin Chen starts pitching well. In other words, the Marlins might have a strong shot at the postseason. Look at everything that has gone wrong. Look at everything that can still go right.