Last week, I wrote a piece on the Atlanta Braves, a team without a clear path or identity heading into the off-season. This week, I’ll discuss another NL East division team that appears to be heading in a more positive direction, one that could make some noise in 2016 thanks to a core of talented young players.
Heading into the current 2015 season, the Miami Marlins seemed primed for a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2003. The team had finished with just a 77-85 record in 2014, but there was reason for optimism thanks to a roster filled with talented players who appeared to be on the verge of breaking out.
The Marlins had already locked up slugger Giancarlo Stanton to a record-breaking 13-year, $325 million deal last off-season. Keeping the 3x NL All-Star around as their longterm centerpiece was crucial in showing a willingness to spend money and be competitive, something not always represented well by owner Jeffrey Loria.
The Fish also made sure that Christian Yelich, Stanton’s outfield mate, would stay in South Florida for the long-term with a 7-year, $49.5 million deal this past March.
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Miami’s starting rotation would be anchored by 22-year-old phenom Jose Fernandez, who had undergone Tommy John surgery in 2014, but was recovering well and on track to return for a majority of the 2015 season.
The club also featured centerfielder Marcell Ozuna, who blasted 23 home runs in 2014, slick-fielding shortstop Adeiny Hecchavaria, and the newly acquired Dee Gordon, who would man 2nd base and be a speedy table-setter at the top of the Marlins’ lineup.
But the fountain of youth didn’t stop there. On the farm were some of the game’s top prospects, including left-handed pitcher Justin Nicolino, and catcher J.T. Realmuto, both of whom would be ready to contribute at the big league level during the 2015 season.
To go with the young guns, the team had acquired some proven veteran winners in pitchers Mat Latos and Dan Haren, plus an all-time great in outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, a strong 3rd baseman in Martin Prado, and a World Series winner in slugger Michael Morse.
The Marlins were a popular NL Wild Card pick in many MLB previews heading into 2015, but a 3-11 start led to a 38-51 record over the first half of the season, putting a damper on those hopes and expectations.
Things haven’t gone much better in the second half, as the team has played to a 26-35 record. While bad baseball certainly has been a factor in this disappointing season, bad luck has perhaps been a bigger one.
Injuries have decimated the club all year. Stanton has been limited to just 74 games this season with a left wrist injury. He has not played since the end of June, and due to an unusual scar tissue growth is now likely to not return until 2016. It marks the 3rd time in 4 seasons that injuries will cost Stanton a significant chunk of his season.
Yelich spent his fair of time on the disabled list with back and knee issues. Henderson Alvarez, who was an NL All-Star last year and finished the season with a dozen wins and a 2.65 ERA, had right shoulder surgery in May, ending his 2015 season. And after returning from Tommy John surgery in July, Fernandez had to go back on the DL in August with a right biceps strain.
Along with injuries, the Marlins have also had some key players underperform. Ozuna was sent down to Triple-A for over a month after hitting just .249 with four homers through 79 games. Steve Cishek, the team’s closer, who saved 91 games for the Fish from 2011-2014, got off to a horrendous start this season, and was replaced by A.J Ramos in the closer’s role in May. Just a month later, Cishek found himself in AAA New Orleans, and on July 24, the Fish traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who signed a 3-year, $21 million deal to go to Miami after winning a World Series title with the Red Sox in 2013, was released in May after starting the season 2-29 at the plate. Starting pitcher Jarred Cosart, whom the Marlins acquired in deal with the Astros in August of 2014, has been on the see-saw between AAA and the Majors this season due to ineffectiveness.
To top it all off, their manager, Mike Redmond, was fired in May during that awful start. His replacement (picked by Loria) was general manager Dan Jennings, who had no experience either managing or playing in the Majors prior to his taking over as the field general.
With all that said, there still would appear to be a hint of light at the end of the tunnel for a team that has had one whirlwind of a season. Gordon is the 2nd best hitter in the NL in terms of average (.332), earned his 2nd straight NL All-Star selection this season, and is still just 27 years of age.
Realmuto has launched 10 homers and is batting .340 in the month of September. Fernandez has returned from his latest injury to pitch 10.2 innings over his last two games, allowing just a pair of runs.
25-year-old reliever Carter Capps, another Marlin currently on the DL, has a 1.16 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 31 innings pitched this year, and is set to return to action soon. Capps could move into the team’s closer role next season. Nicolino has endured rookie struggles, but is just 23-years-old and was selected by MiLB.com as Miami’s organization All-Star a year ago.
If Alvarez comes back in old form, added to a healthy Fernandez and a more experienced Nicolino, the team’s starting rotation could be among the best in the National League next year. Most importantly, when spring training rolls around, the Fish should be getting a completely healthy Stanton back.
Jennings likely will resume his full-time GM duties next season, and Loria should be bringing in an experienced, proven manager to lead this group. According to Greg Cote of the Miami Herald, two strong candidates could be former Twins’ manager Ron Gardenhire and former Padres’ skipper Bud Black. Both have been in the playoffs, and would be good fits for an up and coming squad that could use a voice who has been battle-tested.
The Mets are running away with the NL East this season, and could be positioned to be at the top of the division for the next few years. The Nationals, however, could be losing some big pieces of their team, including starters Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, shortstop Ian Desmond, and center fielder Denard Span, which would be detrimental to their future playoff aspirations.
As stated in my previous article here at TBOH, the Braves will be facing another tough year as they try to figure out the direction in which they want to head. And the Phillies, who should improve from this season, are still a couple of years away from being competitive.
With all this considered, it’s not far-fetched that the Marlins are a dark horse to challenge for the NL East crown in 2016. They certainly have the right pieces to do it. Now they just need a bit more health, and little more luck.