The pundits never saw it coming. After months of talking heads suggesting Miami would be better off selling high on Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins made a serious commitment to the future by signing the left-fielder to baseball’s richest contract ever.
For longtime Marlins fans, this sudden willingness to commit feels foreign. But, thankfully, it appears the days of blowing up the team every few years is now over with Stanton and left fielder Christian Yelich signed to long-term deals. Miami finally has a future to build around and be excited about, and there should be some fun in the South Florida sun this summer.
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Owner Jeffrey Loria has been harshly criticized in the past, and rightfully so, but it appears the front office finally gets it: building a solid foundation leads to long-term success. Stanton’s gargantuan 13-year, $325 million contract is backloaded at his request to ensure the Marlins would commit to building a competitive team. That financial flexibility created the opportunity to lock down Yelich, one of the best young hitters and defenders in the game, to a seven-year $49.57 million deal.
In addition to extending Stanton and Yelich, the Marlins added veterans Michael Morse and Ichiro Suzuki via free agency, and seven different trades netted infielders Dee Gordon and Martin Prado, and pitchers Dan Haren, Mat Latos, David Phelps, Aaron Crow, Kendry Flores and Andre Rienzo.
While the Marlins gave up pitching prospects Andrew Heaney and Anthony DeSclafani, along with 2014 Comeback Player of the Year in third baseman Casey McGehee and one-time hopeful ace Nathan Eovaldi, the team is deeper and more balanced than a year ago. Especially when you consider they’ll be activating a pretty decent pitcher in Jose Fernandez by July.
All conversations about the Marlins offense begin and end with Stanton (.288 AVG, 37 HR, 105 RBI in only 145 games). He was well on his way to the NL MVP before an up-and-in Mike Fiers fastball crushed his left cheek and ended his season on September 11. Sporting his “G” guard to protect his face, Stanton has showed no signs of the jitters this spring, with four home runs and 14 RBI in 48 at-bats. And for the first time in his career, Stanton will have some protection with Morse — who had productive season (.288, 16 HR, 61 RBI) with the Giants despite spending time on the DL — slotted behind Stanton in the lineup.
For the big bats to do damage, Gordon and Yelich need to set the table. While Gordon is a burner who will get 50+ stolen bases, his career .314 OBP isn’t ideal for a leadoff hitter. Yelich, on the other hand, is a patient contact hitter (fifth highest BABIP in MLB at .356) with power potential as he matures. In only his second full season, expect even greater production across the board from last year’s Gold Glove left-fielder.
Marcell Ozuna, Yelich and Stanton give the Marlins third best outfield WAR (14.5) heading into 2015. Ozuna adds power (23 HR, 85 RBI) in the middle of the lineup, as well as a power arm (10 assists) in center field.
The biggest question marks are the infield and behind the plate. Shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria is the only returning infielder, joined by Gordon at second, Morse at first and Prado at third. Not a formidable bunch, and the eye test elicits a “meh,” at best.
Saltalamacchia was a disappointment behind the plate in his first season with the Fish following three productive years in Boston. Jeff Mathis had his option picked up, which was a bit of a surprise, since he’s strictly a backup receiver. Salty’s future may be short lived with a replacement being groomed down on the farm (see below).
Jose Fernandez is due to return from Tommy John in June/July, so it’s up to Henderson Alvarez (12-7, 187 IP, 2.65 ERA) to continue his role of “substitute ace” for the first half. Latos slots in at number two, followed Tom Koehler, Haren and Jarred Cosart. Not the most intimidating rotation, and no one has looked especially sharp this spring, but Alvarez and Koehler continue to mature, and Cosart has the potential to be a solid No. 2-3.
Latos has been awful this spring and Haren wasn’t sure he wanted to play in Miami, but he had 10 million good reasons to give it a go. If Latos and Haren stumble, the Marlins postseason visions could fade fast.
If the starters falter, the Marlins bullpen will be a serviceable bunch. The newly acquired Phelps has looked good this spring and could be first in line to jump from long relief to the rotation, if needed. Steve Cishek has established himself as one of the top closers in the NL, and setup duties will be handled by returning right-handers A.J. Ramos and Bryan Morris, and lefties Mike Dunn and Brad Hand. Aaron Crow would have been a significant addition to the bullpen before Tommy John surgery ended his season.
Opening day lineup
Dee Gordon 2B
Christin Yelich LF
Giancarlo Stanton RF
Michael Morse 1B
Marcell Ozuna CF
Martin Prado 3B
Jarrod Saltalamacchia C
Adeiny Hechavarria SS
Henderson Alvarez P
After trading top prospects Heaney and DeSclafani, the cupboards are bare, evidenced by the drop from #11 in 2014 to #29 this year in Baseball Prospectus’ organizational rankings. Still, catcher J.T. Realmuto is the biggest name to watch. He’ll get a few cups of coffee during the year, but if Saltalamacchia is unproductive, except J.T. sooner rather than later. The number-two overall pick last year, Texas prep star Tyler Kolek and his 102 mph fastball, is still two or three years away from making the jump, but Justin Nicolino and Jose Urena could make a few starts if injuries or poor performances emerge in the rotation.
After many years of hit-and-miss and reboots, the Marlins finally appear ready to contend now and for a long time to come. And they’re doing it with a mixture of young talent and a sprinkle of veterans. And thanks to getting $15 million in cash considerations, the payroll comes in at a paltry $65.8 million. Being competitive this year means the Marlins will likely look to lock up additional young talent for years to come.
As for 2015, if the Fish can stay above .500 at the midway point, they have a chance to sneak into the postseason hunt once Jose Fernandez returns. A +10 increase in wins is possible if Latos and Haren deliver above expectations, and the expected power surge is provided by Stanton, Morse and Ozuna. They’ll be close with 85-87 wins, but will it be enough?