2014 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 2014 season. Next up: The Miami Marlins.

The Big Question: Can the Marlins lose fewer than 100 games?

The Marlins lost exactly 100 games last season, the result of their latest gigantic fire sale. The Fish opened up the 2012 season with a $101.6 million payroll, but ended up trading away Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante, Hanley Ramirez, Edward Mujica, Gaby Sanchez, Heath Bell, Emilio Bonifacio, John Buck, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, and Yunel Escobar by the end of the calendar year.

With most of their talent gone, the Marlins had to fill out their roster with young, inexperienced players and cheap, discarded veterans. On the one hand, this allowed us to watch Jose Fernandez flourish. On the other hand, Jeff Mathis racked up the most playing time behind the dish. The team was not fun to watch, nor even to watch your team play against.

Giancarlo Stanton was the one bright spot on offense. He was the only Marlins hitter (min. 275 plate appearances) to post an adjusted OPS over 95; he finished at 131. The slugger blasted 24 home runs in just over 500 trips to the plate, many of them tape-measure shots. Stanton landed on the disabled list for the second season in a row with a strained right hamstring. He hasn’t exactly been Franklin Gutierrez with his injury problems, but he is starting to get the reputation of someone who struggles to play a full season.

The other bright spot in Miami was Jose Fernandez. The 20-year-old Cuban dominated Major League hitters from the start, allowing two or fewer runs in 11 of his first 15 starts. Ultimately, he finished with a 2.19 ERA and 187 strikeouts in 172 2/3 innings. The Baseball Writers Association of America rewarded him with the National League Rookie of the Year award, and the right-hander also finished third in Cy Young balloting. Going into 2014, he is the undisputed ace of the Marlins’ staff and will unsurprisingly get the Opening Day nod.

The Marlins haven’t done much to improve the roster, staying pretty quiet during the off-season. Their big splash was the signing of catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia to a three-year, $21 million deal. The Fish did add Garrett Jones to replace Logan Morrison at first base, Rafael Furcal to play at second base, Casey McGehee to man the hot corner, and Carlos Marmol to contribute out of the bullpen, but they can all be classified as garbage heap signings.

What else is going on? 

  • Last season, closer Steve Cishek impressed by saving 34 games and posting a 2.33 ERA in 69 2/3 innings. It marks his third consecutive season with a sub-2.70 ERA. Unfortunately, Cishek is eligible for arbitration in each of the next two years, so he will get a raise on his $3.8 million salary for 2014. This means that the Marlins are very likely to trade him, if not by the July 31 trade deadline, then at some point during the off-season.
  • The starting rotation beyond Fernandez has a chance to be productive. ZiPS is projecting a 3.94 ERA for Henderson Alvarez, 4.09 for Nate Eovaldi, and 4.35 for Jacob Turner. PECOTA isn’t too far off at 4.10, 4.41, and 4.07, respectively. No, they don’t knock your socks off, but if the trio can beat the projections even by a little bit, the Marlins won’t  be the 100-game losers of yesteryear.
  • Christian Yelich impressed in 62 games after being called up in late July, posting a .766 OPS in 273 PA. He also stole ten bases in as many attempts. He was Baseball America’s #15 prospect entering the season and he will be the club’s starting left fielder.
  • The Marlins will try to sign Stanton to a contract extension throughout the season. Stanton was displeased with the team’s fire sale in 2012, but said recently he’d consider signing long-term if they showed him a commitment to winning. He said, “[Security] happens over a season or over two seasons. You show me that, and we can get something going.” [Via MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro] 

Prediction: The Marlins have some players to keep your eye on, but unfortunately, the majority of their roster is dreck and it will cost them plenty of games. Reaching the 70-win threshold will be a battle. Fifth place, NL East.

How not to enjoy what Aaron Judge is doing

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Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge has been one of the biggest and best stories in all of baseball this year. While he held promise entering his rookie season, most experts figured he’d provide some low-average, low-OBP power. That he’d be a guy who, based on his size, could send a pitcher’s mistake 500 feet in the wrong direction, but who would probably be shown to have big holes in his swing once he’d been around the league a little bit.

Judge defied expectations, however, and has put together an amazing rookie season. He broke the rookie home run record yesterday with his 50th blast. He still strikes out a lot but so does everyone. He nonetheless has hit for a great average and has gotten on base at a fantastic clip. He has also showed some uncommon resilience, overcoming a lengthy slump in July and August and returning to the dominant form he showed in the first half while helping a Yankees team not many figured to be a strong contender into the playoffs. Such a great story!

Sadly, however, this sentiment, which appeared from a commenter on my Facebook page yesterday, has become increasingly common:

I’ve seen it in a lot of comments sections and message boards around the Internet too, including our own comment section. From yesterday:

This is not exactly the same thing we’ve seen in the past with other breakout home run hitters such as Jose Bautista a few years back. This is not an accusation that Judge is taking drugs or anything. It’s more of a preemptive and defensive diminishment of excitement. And I find it rather sad.

Yes, I understand that past PED users have made fans wonder whether the players they watch are using something to get an extra edge, but it really does not need to be this way. We’ve had drug testing in baseball for over a decade and, while no drug testing regime is perfect, it just seems bizarre, several years after Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did their thing — and a few years after Alex Rodriguez and others were caught and disciplined for trying to do more — to assume, out of hand, that great baseball performances are the product of undetected cheating. Yes, it’s possible, but such assumptions should not be the default stance, only to be disproved (somehow) at a later date.

The same goes for the juiced baseball, right? Yes, there is strong evidence that the baseball was changed a couple of years back leading to a home run spike, but aren’t all players using the same baseball? It’s also worth remembering that the season Mark McGwire hit 49 homers — 1987 — is strongly suspected of being a juiced ball year as well. It’s a concern that may be based in fact, but it’s a large concern over a fact thrown out with little regard for context to sketch out a threat that is either remote or without consequence.

The point here is not to argue that Aaron Judge is undeniably clean or that the baseball isn’t different. The former is unknown and the latter is likely false. The point is that it’s super sad and self-defeating to qualify every amazing feat you see with preemptive concern about such things. Years and years of sports writers writing McCarthy-esque “Yes, but is he clean?” articles does not require you, as a fan, to do the same. You can enjoy a cool thing in the moment. If it’s found out later to have been tainted, fine, we have a lot of practice in contextualizing such things and we’ll do so pretty quickly, but what’s the harm in going with it in real time?

I suspect the answer to that is rooted in some desire not to look like a sucker or something. Not to find oneself like many did, in the mid-2000s, being told by sportswriters and politicians that they were dupes for enjoying Sosa and McGwire in 1998. But that’s idiotic, in my view. I enjoyed 1998 and all of the baseball I saw on either side of it, as did most baseball fans. When the PEDs stuff exploded in the 2000s I reassessed it somewhat as far as the magnitude of the accomplishments compared to other eras in history, but it didn’t mean I enjoyed what I had seen any less.

Likewise, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of watching Aaron Judge this year. Why can’t everyone? Why is it so hard? Why have we been conditioned to be skeptical of something that is supposed to be entertaining? When your personal stakes are low like they are with respect to any sporting event or form of entertainment, it’s OK to enjoy things while they’re enjoyable and worry about them being problematic if and when they ever become so. And hey, they may not!

I promise you: if Aaron Judge walks into the postseason awards banquet this winter carrying a briefcase that unexpectedly opens and 200 syringes full of nandrolone fall out, no one is going to say you were dumb for cheering for him yesterday. It will really be OK.

Yadier Molina leaves game after taking two foul balls to the mask

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The St. Louis Cardinals have been eliminated from contention for the NL Central crown and are hanging on by the thinnest of threads in the race for the second NL Wild Card, two and a half games back of the Rockies with the Brewers in between. Last night those dim playoff hopes took what may have been a fatal blow thanks to a couple of foul balls that knocked Yadier Molina out of the game and, possibly, out for the season.

In the seventh inning of last night’s Cubs-Cardinals game Molina took a Kris Bryant foul ball off of his mask. It sent him to his knees. He gathered himself, set back up and, on the very next pitch, took a second foul ball, right to the mask. He was much slower in rising that time and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny immediately — and wisely — pulled Molina from the game.

Molina is being monitored for a concussion. Whether he has one or not, prudence would dictate sitting him down for the rest of what are likely the Cardinals final six games of 2017.