2013 preview: Miami Marlins

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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 2013 season. Up next: The Miami Marlins.

The Big Question: Can the Marlins recover from their latest fire sale?

A little over a year ago, the Marlins opened up the season with a new, reinvigorated outlook. Their Opening Day payroll increased from $57.7 million in 2011 to $101.6 million thanks to three big free agent signings: Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell. They had also acquired Carlos Zambrano, bolstering a core that included Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson, and Anibal Sanchez.

On July 22, the Marlins found themselves at 44-51, 12.5 games behind the first-place Washington Nationals. Feeling a second-half surge too improbable, they traded Sanchez and Omar Infante to the Detroit Tigers, then sent Hanley Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers two days later. The Marlins went 25-42 the rest of the way, but they weren’t done selling.

On November 19, the Marlins and Blue Jays pulled off one of the biggest trades (in terms of number of players involved) in baseball history. The Fish sent Reyes, Johnson, Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio, John Buck, and cash to the Toronto Blue Jays. In return, they received Yunel Escobar, Henderson Alvarez, Jeff Mathis, prospect Adeiny Hechavarria along with three other Minor Leaguers. As a result, the roster the Marlins will be opening up 2013 with looks nothing like their 2012 iteration. Those getting their first attempts at an everyday job include shortstop Hechavarria, center fielder Justin Ruggiano, second baseman Donovan Solano, and catcher Rob Brantly. Steve Cishek, with 18 career saves, will start the season as the closer.

Even for a roster that is infused with so much youth, the Marlins took some gambles as well. Logan Morrison, who can never seem to stay healthy, is taking over at first base while injury-prone 37-year-old Placido Polanco will patrol third base. 35-year-old Juan Pierre is the everyday left fielder.

Frankly, it’s tough to see what their game plan is. Despite a payroll that has shrunk below $40 million, they are not entering a rebuilding phase and they do not lay claim anything better than an average farm system, at least according to Keith Law. One year after opening up a new stadium which cost $634 million — $376.3 and $132.5 million of which was paid for by Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami, respectively – you have to wonder what, besides retaining Giancarlo Stanton, they are doing to draw fans to games.

2013 is going to be ugly in so many ways for the Marlins and what little remains of their fan base.

What else is going on? 

  • Ricky Nolasco is eligible for free agency after the season. It will be his last opportunity to strike it rich. The 30-year-old right-hander has failed to live up to lofty expectations throughout his career, owning a 4.49 ERA in over 1,100 innings. His ability to miss bats has fallen precipitously in recent years: his strikeout rate was 25 percent in 2009, but was only 15 percent last year. Don’t think the other 29 GM’s in baseball haven’t noticed because the Marlins have had ample opportunities to move him and simply couldn’t. If he can 1.) stay healthy; 2.) post good results; 3.) with an improved strikeout rate, there may be a team or two willing to pay for his services after the season.
  • How good can Giancarlo Stanton be? Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection system sees a .973 OPS with 41 home runs. He was at .969 with 37 dingers last year, so it is certainly realistic. That would put him around a 160 adjusted OPS. If achieved, he would join Mike Trout (2012) and Albert Pujols (2003) as the only three players in the 2000’s to post a 160 or better adjusted OPS at the age of 23 or younger. Two things to keep an eye on: 1) will the Marlins trade him, either mid-season or during the off-season? 2) will he surpass his MLB-leading (according to Hit Tracker Online) 494 feet on an August 17 home run against Josh Roenicke at Coors Field? Never forget.
  • Steve Cishek has a chance to become a decent closer. He posted a  2.63 and 2.69 ERA in 2011 and ’12, respectively, fooling hitters with a funky side-arm delivery. He still needs to work on his control – a ten percent walk rate won’t cut it in high-leverage situations over the long haul. But the potential is certainly there.
  • Ugh. Seriously, the Marlins roster as a whole is depressing and ugly with very few long-term prospects. Let’s be honest, Jeffrey Loria and David Samson are bad for baseball.

Prediction: Fifth place, National League East.

Justin Turner is a postseason monster

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A not-insignificant amount of the Dodgers’ success in recent years has to do with the emergence of Justin Turner. In his first five seasons with the Orioles and Mets, he was a forgettable infielder who had versatility, but no power. The Mets non-tendered him after the 2013 season, a move they now really regret.

In four regular seasons since, as a Dodger, Turner has hit an aggregate .303/.378/.502. His 162-game averages over those four seasons: 23 home runs, 36 doubles, 83 RBI, 80 runs scored. And he’s also a pretty good third baseman, it turns out. The Dodgers have averaged 95 wins per season over the past four years.

Turner, 32, has gotten better and better with each passing year. This year, he drew more walks (59) than strikeouts (56), a club only five other players (min. 300 PA) belonged to, and he trailed only Joey Votto (1.61) in BB/K ratio (1.05). He zoomed past his previous career-high in OPS, finishing at .945. His .415 on-base percentage was fourth-best in baseball. His batting average was fifth-best and only nine points behind NL batting champion Charlie Blackmon.

It doesn’t seem possible, but Turner has been even better in the postseason. He exemplified that with his walk-off home run to win Game 2 of the NLCS against the Cubs. Overall, entering Wednesday night’s action, he was batting .363/.474/.613 in 97 postseason plate appearances. In Game 4, he went 2-for-2 with two walks, a single, and a solo home run. That increases his postseason slash line to .378/.495/.659, now across 101 plate appearances. That’s a 1.154 OPS. The career-high regular season OPS for future first-ballot Hall of Famer Albert Pujols was 1.114 in 2008, when he won his third career MVP Award. Statistically, in the postseason, Turner hits slightly better than Pujols did in the prime of his career. Of course, we should adjust for leagues and parks and all that, but to even be in that neighborhood is incredible.

In the age of stats, the concept of “clutch” has rightfully eroded. We don’t really allow players to ascend to godlike levels anymore like the way we did Derek Jeter, for instance. (Jeter’s career OPS in the playoffs, by the way, was a comparatively pitiful .838.) Turner isn’t clutch; he’s just a damn good hitter whose careful approach at the plate has allowed him to shine in the postseason and the Dodgers can’t imagine life without him.