From where Don Mattingly sat on Monday, it was a short walk to the hotel casino at the Mandalay Bay, where the blinking lights of the slots aroused the get-rich-quick hopes of Midwestern farmers and Southern housewives and anyone else with a quarter to burn.
For Mattingly and the Marlins, though, their chances of hitting the jackpot at these baseball Winter Meetings and turning a last place club into a World Series champion with a trade here or free agent signing there are beyond astronomical.
The Mandalay has the Marlins at 125-1 to win it all in 2019.
They should be closer to a million to one.
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And they probably would be if they had heard Mattingly’s honest response to a simple question: Outside of second baseman Starlin Castro, what position on the Marlins is locked up going into spring training?
His reply: “I think, definitively, it’s hard to say.”
That’s right. While the teams around them in the National League East — a division the Marlins have never won, by the way — load up for the coming season, the Marlins don’t know for certain who will be their Opening Day first baseman or shortstop or catcher or any other position besides second base.
It’s hardly cause for great optimism.
The Marlins are in the second year of a rebuild, and with it comes the likelihood it could be several more years before they are in a legitimate position to end a 15-year playoff drought.
That’s why they are wisely shopping catcher J.T. Realmuto here in trade discussions, with no fewer than a dozen teams expressing interest in the All-Star. Realmuto, with only two years remaining before he hits free agency, is essentially a wasted commodity for the Marlins, more valuable to them in what he can bring back in a trade than what he can provide for them on the field.
There is a good chance they will trade him before the meetings end Thursday, most likely for a top prospect, young Major Leaguer, or combination of the two.
Otherwise, the Marlins, though not a bystander at the Winter Meetings, are operating in the background. They are not among the handful of teams pursuing the top two free agents on the market, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Nor are they — with the possible exception of a Realmuto trade — expected to make any kind of major splash before returning home to Miami.
Meanwhile, their N.L. East rivals are beefing up their rosters.
Already this offseason, the Nationals have acquired Patrick Corbin, the division champion Braves added Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann, the Mets traded for Robinson Cano and A.L. saves leader Edwin Diaz, and the Phillies, with cash to burn, are in the fray to sign Harper and Machado.
For the Marlins, the immediate future looks daunting as they await the development of prospects in their own farm system and continue to find more to add to the mix.
“I think you’re realistic where we’re at right now and you see what’s happening within the division,” Mattingly said. “I think you have to be realistic from that standpoint. But I also think you have to be enough of a believer in your guys getting better that anything can happen and you can win a game every day.”
The Marlins already have about $70 million earmarked in salary commitments for next season and, sources said, are in position to spend more to reach a projected Opening Day payroll of about $80 million to $90 million. But any signings they make will likely be of the low-level variety to hold down positions until the prospects arrive.
Mattingly, who is in the final year of his contract, knows he faces a difficult challenge with a team that went 63-98 last season. But like those shoving quarters into the slot machines in the casino down the hall from him on Monday, Mattingly -- against all odds -- maintained hope.
“You just can’t sit here and say, oh, this is going to be another year like last year,” Mattingly said. “We’ve got to improve as an organization, continue to build this thing, do it the right way, where it’s going to be sustainable over a long period of time. And we’re in that process right now.”
“I think you have to look at it like we’re in the next phase, and you have to have enough belief that anything can happen.”