Can Wei-Yin Chen Help the Marlins Make the Playoffs?
The Miami Marlins have purchased for themselves a number-two starter.
On Tuesday, the team agreed to terms with former Orioles hurler Wei-Yin Chen, agreeing to a five-year, $80 million deal with a sixth-year option. It also contains the latest fad in baseball contracts: an early player opt-out clause.
Chen's opt-out would trigger after just two years in which he is owed $20 million, leaving three years and $60 million in guaranteed cash after the opt-out is triggered. That makes it more likely Chen will choose to opt-in after the 2017 season, in which he will be 32 years old.
The left-hander has been one of baseball's steadiest performers through his four years in the bigs. He doesn't generate a ton of strikeouts, 6.97 per nine innings over his career, but he also doesn't walk that many, just 2.19 per nine. He has a career ERA of 3.72 and a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 4.14. Over the last four seasons, he has been worth 9.5 fWAR, with a low of 2.0 in 2013 and a high of 2.8, achieved last year with the Orioles.
In 2015, Chen had his best season overall, going 11-8 in 31 starts (191 1/3 innings pitched) with a career-best 3.34 ERA and a 4.16 FIP, with a career-high K/9 of 7.20 and a better than average BB/9 of 1.93. Opponents batted .257 against him last year, 22nd-best among qualified AL starters. His nERD of 2.04 means, over a 27-out game, Chen would give up 2.04 runs per game less than a league-average pitcher.
The five-year, $80 million deal is right in line with contracts signed by similar players this year, including Mike Leake's five-year, $80 million deal and Jeff Samardzija's five year, $90 million contract. Unlike Leake, however, the Marlins were forced to give up a second round pick as compensation for signing a free agent who declined a qualifying offer (their first round pick was top-10 protected).
The signing allows Miami to slot Chen right behind ace Jose Fernandez in the rotation, with Tom Koehler (11-14, 4.08 ERA) and Jarred Cosart (2-5, 4.52 ERA in 13 starts) behind them. It's certainly not a division-winning rotation, not with the arms the New York Mets and Washington Nationals can throw out there, but it does seem that the Marlins believe their offense will rebound enough to make them competitive for a wild card.
You can see why they'd be optimistic about an offensive turnaround. They have the game's best slugger in Giancarlo Stanton, talented outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna (provided he's not traded), second-year first baseman Justin Bour, outstanding second baseman Dee Gordon and a solid third baseman in Martin Prado.
But it is by no means a lock the bats will turn things around.
Chen isn't a hard thrower, averaging between 91 and 92 miles per hour on his fastball, featuring a slider, change and curve. And while his strikeout rate improved last year, what he does best is induce weak contact. According to Fangraphs, Chen had the third-best soft-hit ball percentage among qualified American League starters last year, with 21.9% of all balls hit off him classified as "soft."
This is a big deal for the Marlins, the second-largest free agent contract ever handed out by the team (only Jose Reyes' $106 million deal was bigger). And Chen will certainly help out a starting rotation that finished with a 4.25 ERA and a 4.24 FIP last year (ninth-best in the NL), and 6.45 K/9, second-to-last in the National League.
Chen doesn't make the Marlins playoff contenders, but he certainly helps them field a more competitive team in 2016.