Springtime Storylines: Are the Marlins the most interesting team in baseball?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The new-look Miami Marlins.

The big question: Are the Marlins the most interesting team in baseball?

The Florida Marlins are no longer. We now have the Miami Marlins, complete with a new logo and uniforms, a quirky, new taxpayer-funded stadium and new skipper Ozzie Guillen, who has made a habit out of being a lightning rod for controversy. After years of fielding a team on the cheap, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria finally opened his wallet over the winter and while he didn’t lure Albert Pujols to South Florida, he was successful in getting Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell into the fold. The Marlins also made a deal with the Cubs in January for Carlos Zambrano, who ended last season on the restricted list after his latest personal meltdown.

Back from shoulder surgery, Hanley Ramirez is making the move over to third base to accommodate Reyes at shortstop. The 28-year-old reportedly had a tough time accepting the position change, but he hasn’t sulked yet. Just as the Marlins made the switch from Florida to Miami, Mike Stanton is now going by Giancarlo Stanton. At just 22 years old, he’s already one of the best power hitters in the game. And we also have baseball’s most famous tweeter Logan Morrison, who was demoted to the minors last season after clashing with management.

Win or lose, the Marlins should be the most interesting team in baseball this season. They certainly have the pieces in place to overtake the Phillies in the division, but they should also come with a warning label that reads, “contents may ignite or explode.” Showtime clearly sees the potential for great television, as they plan to feature them on the new season of “The Franchise.”

What else is going on?

  • Josh Johnson had a 1.64 ERA over his first nine starts last year before landing on the disabled list in May with a mysterious shoulder injury. No structural damage was ever found, but it was apparently serious enough where he didn’t make another start for the rest of the season. The 28-year-old right-hander hasn’t had any setbacks this spring, but it’s tough to count on him considering that he has logged more than 190 innings just once in his career. Anibal Sanchez has surprisingly made 32 starts in each of the past two seasons, but his injury history is also worrisome. The Marlins would have a tough time making a serious run if even one of them misses an extended period of time.
  • How is the new ballpark going to play? We need large sample of games before making an accurate judgment and this could be a very different stadium depending upon whether the roof is open, but the dimensions of the outfield are pretty big. The center field fence is 416 feet away from home plate while right-center field is 31 feet further away than it was in Sun Life Stadium. Only the fence down the right field line (335 ft) is closer than their former home. Giancarlo Stanton can hit home runs anywhere, but this probably means a favorite environment for the pitching staff and lots of triples for Jose Reyes.
  • No, I didn’t forget about the elaborate and unusual home run sculpture beyond the left-center field fence. We’ve talked about it so much over the past year or so that its debut is almost as anticipated as Stephen Strasburg’s was. As ridiculous at it looks, I think this gaudy hunk of metal will grow on us over time. Sort of like the episode of “Seinfeld” where that girl found George Costanza really irritating initially, but then he got stuck in her head. Co-stan-za!
  • Will people actually show up to the new ballpark in Little Havana? The Marlins have ranked last in the National League in attendance in each of the last six seasons, so I have my doubts. Of course, Loria hasn’t provided any reason for someone to want to come see the team. He has generated buzz this winter by adding some star power to the roster and he has been overt about attracting the Hispanic community, so the honeymoon phase should go well enough. But if they don’t win? Let’s just say I wouldn’t rule out another fire sale.

So how are they gonna do?

Best-case? Johnson throws 200 innings, Stanton hits 40 homers, Reyes stays mostly healthy and Hanley embraces the move to third base while bouncing back from his down 2011 campaign. If those things happen, the Marlins should challenge the Phillies for the division crown. However, I think there are way too many variables that could mess with that optimistic scenario. I have them in third place with around 85-88 wins, which puts them right in the mix for the second wild card spot.

The Phillies are trying out prospect J.P. Crawford at third base

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On Sunday, for the first time in his professional career, Phillies shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford started at third base. He picked up three hits in five at-bats, continuing his torrid pace. Since the start of July, he’s hitting .306/.397/.595 with 11 home runs, 28 RBI, 33 runs scored, and a 37/25 K/BB ratio in 199 plate appearances.

With September looming, the Phillies may be considering a promotion for Crawford. Shortstop, however, is currently taken by Freddy Galvis who has appeared in every game this season and has taken on a leadership role with the team. Meanwhile, third baseman Maikel Franco has been mired in a season-long slump as he’s carrying a devilish .666 OPS.

The Phillies haven’t been averse to trying their prospects out at new positions. Prior to his recent promotion, Rhys Hoskins had played only first base throughout his professional career, but the Phillies moved him to left field for a few games, then called him up to the majors. Hoskins has made nine starts in the outfield and two at first base in the majors thus far.

As MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki notes, the Phillies are also considering trying out second base prospect Scott Kingery at shortstop or third base before the end of the minor league season.

These aren’t long-term plans; it’s just a way for the Phillies to find meaningful playing time for their prospects and giving manager Pete Mackanin potential flexibility. Assistant GM Ned Rice said, “It benefits the player and benefits the team when more guys are able to play multiple positions. It just gives Pete [Mackanin] a lot more options at the big league level. The more guys we can bring up who have been exposed to different positions, the better.”

Players having great seasons under the radar

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Yesterday, I watched a myriad of defensive highlights from Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons (who also homered). Curious, I looked up his stats and found him among the leaders in Wins Above Replacement. And then I found a handful of other players having great seasons and realized I’ve hardly heard anything about them. Let this be my contribution towards raising them into the spotlight.

Andrelton Simmons (Angels): The 27-year-old is having the best offensive season of his career. He posted a .751 OPS in his rookie season, but that spanned only 49 games. From 2013-16, he had an aggregate .664 OPS. His defense never wavered, of course, which is why he kept getting regular playing time and why the Angels were eager to trade for him in November 2015. This season, however, he’s been a terrific hitter, batting .292/.345/.451 with 13 home runs, 57 RBI, 62 runs scored, and 17 stolen bases in 502 plate appearances. He’s four home runs away from matching a career-high. Simmons is 11th in baseball in FanGraphs’ version of WAR, heavily predicated on the valuation of his defense, but it’s not too outlandish for me to believe Simmons has added nearly two wins above replacement on defense alone. While Jose Altuve, Aaron Judge, and Mike Trout will fight for the lion’s share of AL MVP votes, Simmons could get some down ballot consideration.

Gio Gonzalez (Nationals): Gonzalez nearly threw a no-hitter earlier this season against the Marlins, which brought some eyeballs to his stat line. Still, he hasn’t been talked about much somehow. He’s 12-5 with a 2.39 ERA and a  150/62 K/BB ratio in 162 innings. It’s nothing new for Gonzalez, as he won 21 games with a 2.89 ERA en route to finishing third in Cy Young balloting in 2012. There’s also some reason to believe Gonzalez’s performance is in some part due to great fortune as his batting average on balls in play is about 50 points below league average and his rate of stranding runners on base is more than 11 percent higher than his career average. Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have had better seasons and will be the first and second place finishers in this year’s balloting, but Gonzalez is looking at likely finishing third again, which is no small feat.

Aaron Nola (Phillies): After a dismal June 16 start against the Diamondbacks, Nola stood with a disappointing 4.76 ERA. After the first two innings of last Thursday’s start against the Giants, he briefly brought it under 3.00. Currently, it’s at 3.26 along with a 128/38 K/BB ratio in 124 1/3 innings. Since that June 16 start, he’s made 11 starts with a composite 2.21 ERA across 73 1/3 innings. The right-hander out of LSU showed promise in his rookie year in 2015, then struggled last year before succumbing to injury. Finally, it’s appearing that Nola is showing the promise the Phillies believed in when they took him in the first round (seventh overall) in the 2014 draft. Perhaps more importantly, he looks like a pitcher the Phillies can build around. If there’s one thing the Phillies have lacked since trading Cole Hamels, it’s a starter capable of throwing seven or eight innings and holding the opposition to one or two runs.

Chris Taylor (Dodgers): On a team that features Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Alex Wood, and recently added Yu Darvish, it’s understandable that Taylor would slip under the radar. He’s played five different positions this season — left field, second base, center field, third base, and shortstop — while batting .311/.383/.549 with 17 home runs, 58 RBI, 69 runs scored, and 14 stolen bases in 413 plate appearances. He’s played average to above-average defense at most of those positions, which is why his 4.6 fWAR ranks 13th in baseball and 10th in the National League. Before the Dodgers acquired him from the Mariners last June in a very little talked about trade, Taylor had been a weak-hitting utilityman. Now, he’s the starting center fielder for baseball’s best team.

Felipe Rivero (Pirates): The Pirates acquired Rivero from the Nationals last year in the Mark Melancon trade. It worked out well for the Buccos. Though the club sits at a disappointing 60-64 in fourth place in the NL Central, Rivero has been a bright spot, owning a major league best 1.31 ERA with 14 saves and a 73/16 K/BB ratio in 61 2/3 innings. The lefty took over the closer’s role when Tony Watson began to struggle in the first half. While Rivero has been terrific against right-handed hitters, limiting them to a .547 OPS, he’s been death to lefties (.227 OPS). After the season, Rivero will be eligible for arbitration for the first of four years, so it wouldn’t be shocking if he got traded at some point, but for now, they’ll enjoy his outstanding 2017 campaign.