The good news for Miami Marlins fans is 2014 can’t be worse than the circus of 2013 — especially now that we’re a year removed from the latest exodus of star players and all is quiet in Jupiter … so far.
In fact, as they have done following past fire sales, the Marlins appear to be building a stellar foundation for the future. The lingering question, as it always is in South Florida: How long will owner Jeffrey Loria keep this nucleus together?
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At the moment (these qualifiers are necessary when talking Marlins baseball), it appears to be the foreseeable future. The most positive indicator is the front office’s resolve to keep Giancarlo Stanton despite offers from many, if not all other 29, MLB teams. Granted, he’s under control and relatively inexpensive through 2016, but Stanton staying put is a sign this core could be around for several years, which is good news for Fish fans.
There’s a lot to be excited about, too. Last season’s NL Rookie of the Year, Jose Fernandez, is now the face of the franchise and even more hungry for success. And the free-agent signings of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Rafael Furcal bring veteran leadership to a team that was sorely lacking it in 2013.
The Marlins had the worst offense, by far, in all of baseball last year, finishing last in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. Stanton was the team leader in each of these categories — .249 average, 24 home runs, 62 RBI and .365 OBP — and defensive highlight reel Adeiny Hechavarria led the team in hits with only 123 while batting .227. Ouch.
Which explains why several new faces are in camp this year – with four of the five infield positions changing hands. Hechavarria is the lone returning infielder at shortstop. Free-agent signee Furcal, who sat out 2013 following Tommy John surgery, will start at second base after spending most of his career at shortstop with the Braves, Dodgers and Cardinals.
Saltalamacchia brings leadership, production and postseason experience to a position that was one of the least productive on the roster and in baseball last season. Marlins catchers hit .194 in 2013, tying the Blue Jays for MLB-worst.
Expect the Marlins to platoon at the corners, with Ed Lucas and Casey McGehee – who hit 28 home runs and drove in 98 playing in Japan last year – holding down third and offseason acquisitions Garrett Jones and Jeff Baker taking turns at first.
The outfield, on the other hand, has a familiar ring with former No.1-prospect Chrisitan Yelich now the everyday left fielder, Marcell Ozuna in center and Stanton in right. This trio has the potential to develop into a potent middle of the order over the next few seasons. Greg Dobbs returns as the versatile utility man, and Brian Bogusevic is a leading candidate for the fourth outfield spot.
While the offense slumbered last year, the Marlins young pitching staff showed glimmers of what’s to come. Called up the day before the season opener last year, Fernandez (12-6, 2.19 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, .182 BAA) exceeded expectations before being shut down in early September.
Fernandez helped the Marlins set a franchise-low 3.87 ERA, but he isn’t the lone potential star in the rotation. Nathan Eovaldi (3.39 ERA in 18 starts), Henderson Alvarez (3.59 ERA in 17 starts, including a season-ending no-hitter) and Jacob Turner (3.74 ERA in 20 starts) were slowed by injuries and poor performances last spring before progressing nicely as the season wore on. A full season from this foursome could bring surprising results, even if the offense is only a tad better. The No. 5 hole is up for grabs with Kevin Slowey and Tom Koehler battling for the final spot.
Steve Chisek took over the closer role from the abysmal Heath Bell in 2012 and exceeded expectations in his first full season last year, saving 34 of the Marlins 62 wins, including an MLB-best streak of 29 to close out the season. Bullpen cornerstones Ryan Webb and Chad Qualls are gone, but lefty Mike Dunn returns and is joined by A.J. Ramos, Carlos Marmol, Dan Jennings and flamethrower Carter Capps, who came from Seattle in the Logan Morrison trade.
Opening day lineup
1. Rafael Furcal, 2B
2. Christian Yelich, LF
3. Giancarlo Stanton, RF
4. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
5. Garrett Jones/Jeff Baker 1B
6. Marcell Ozuna, CF
7. Casey McGehee/Ed Lucas, 3B
8. Adeiny Hechavarria, SS
Baseball Prospectus released its 25-and-Under Talent Rankings earlier this week, and the Marlins are fifth behind St. Louis, Washington, Atlanta and Pittsburgh. The rankings evaluate talent based on the top 10 players age 25 or younger on each team’s active and minor league rosters. With the exception of lefty phenom Andrew Heaney and future third baseman Colin Moran, the remaining eight players should be on the 25-man active roster when camp breaks.
That’s both good news and bad news. The good news is the Marlins have a young core that could be together for several years, while the bad news is the prospect cupboards are bare with the young talent already on the major league roster.
Heaney, 22, has impressed this spring and could see some time in the rotation sooner rather than later. He’s the number-one prospect in all of baseball among left-handed pitchers, compiling a 10-5 record with a 2.21 ERA in 122.1 innings of work at double-A and below. He’ll most likely start the season in double-A Jacksonville, but could leapfrog to the Marlins if any starters get injured. Moran, the Marlins number-one pick (sixth overall) in 2013, is a few years away from serious consideration.
The Marlins will be interesting to watch in 2014. It’s highly unlikely they’ll lose 100 games again this year, and a 15-game improvement is a realistic goal, especially when you consider they were 24-34 in one-run games last year. A few more hits here or there and the Marlins could have earned 5-10 more victories. Which is why 2014 could be intriguing. The pitching should be better with full seasons from the starters, and the offense should be remarkably better. Given that, the Fish could finish above .500 if their young-guns rotation and retooled offense stay healthy and deliver.