2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The Miami Marlins.

The Big Question: Do the Marlins have what it takes to compete for the NL Wild Card in 2015?

The Marlins have averaged 70 wins over the last four seasons, including 62 in 2013 after owner Jeffrey Loria orchestrated one of his franchise’s characteristic fire sales. Indeed, the Marlins have become a target of derision for Loria’s wishy-washy approach to building a competitive team. If there is a sign ownership is serious about contending, their build-up to the 2015 season is it.

In November, 25-year-old right fielder Giancarlo Stanton signed a record 13-year, $325 million extension. The past season was Stanton’s first in which he played in more than 123 games, and it ended with an unfortunate injury as he was hit in the face with a Mike Fiers fastball. Nevertheless, Stanton still led the National League with 37 home runs and a .555 slugging percentage. As good as he has been, Stanton’s best years may still lay in front of him. It should also be noted he can opt out of his contract after the 2020 season, the sixth year of his extension. Should he choose that route, the Marlins will have only paid him $107 million.

The Marlins also extended left fielder Christian Yelich on Wednesday, committing $49.57 million over seven years to the 23-year-old. Yelich, in his first full season in 2014, batted .284/.362/.402 with nine home runs, 54 RBI, and 21 stolen bases while playing superb defense. He would have been eligible for arbitration after the 2019 season, so this buys out two pre-arbitration seasons, three arbitration seasons, and two free agency seasons.

That wasn’t all the Marlins did over the winter. They bolstered their rotation in acquiring Mat Latos from the Reds in exchange for Anthony DeSclafani and minor leaguer Chad Wallach. They also got Dan Haren and Dee Gordon from the Dodgers in exchange for prospect Andrew Heaney and a handful of other players. They acquired third baseman Martin Prado and pitcher David Phelps from the Yankees in exchange for Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Jones, and minor leaguer Domingo German. They signed Mike Morse to a two-year, $16 million deal to play first base. In January, they brought in Ichiro Suzuki on a one-year, $2 million contract to serve as a fourth outfielder.

The Marlins arguably have an average or better player at every position on the diamond, throughout their starting rotation, and in the back of their bullpen. While their roster lacks the ceiling of the division rival Nationals, the Marlins are certainly strong enough now where they can reasonably be considered contenders in the NL Wild Card race. FanGraphs, using Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections, pegs them at an even 81-81 record. Among those not projected to win a division title, only the Pirates (85 wins), Cubs (84), Padres (83), and Giants (82) are expected to finish better. With a couple of breaks going their way and perhaps the intra-division battling among the NL West teams deflating each other’s records, the Marlins might be able to sneak into the Wild Card playoff game. If they happen to reach the post-season, they will have done so for the first time since 2003. The only two times the franchise has reached the playoffs (also in 1997), they have won the World Series, so look out, National League.

What else is going on?

  • Jose Fernandez is on his way back from Tommy John surgery, which he underwent last May. He recently threw his entire repertoire of pitches in a 25-pitch bullpen session – though not at full effort – and is expected to make a return to the Marlins around mid- to late-June. The talented 22-year-old has a terrific 2.25 ERA and a 257/71 K/BB ratio over 224 1/3 career innings in the majors. His return, even if not immediately at his previous level of performance, will be a significant boon to the Marlins.
  • Steve Cishek has quietly been one of the league’s better closers, compiling a 2.73 ERA with 73 saves and a 158/43 K/BB ratio in 135 innings over the last two seasons as the Marlins’ ninth-inning answer. He earned $6.65 million in avoiding arbitration coming into this season and will be eligible for arbitration going into each of the next two season as well. Unless he suffers a catastrophic injury or completely melts down, he’ll inevitably reach an eight figure salary before becoming a free agent. As freely as the Marlins have spent, they’re still entering the 2015 season with a sub-$70 million payroll and Cishek may prove too expensive for his role. As a result, the Marlins could shop him in an attempt to bolster any weaknesses on their roster at the July trade deadline.
  • Dan Haren threatened to retire if the Dodgers traded him away from the West Coast, and they did anyway in sending him to Miami. He tried to push the Marlins into trading him back West so he could be closer to his family and his home, but obviously nothing happened. He recently said he is no longer considering retiring and appears poised to contribute to the Marlins out of the back of the starting rotation. Haren’s production has waned as he’s posted an ERA above 4.00 in each of the last three seasons while becoming increasingly homer-prone. The spacious confines of Marlins Park should help him.
  • With Fernandez out, Henderson Alvarez is the ace of the Marlins’ staff for now. He had an extremely good 2014 campaign, putting up a 2.65 ERA with a 111/33 K/BB ratio in 187 innings. His 14.4 percent strikeout rate, though, was the seventh lowest among qualified starting pitchers last season. Pitchers who posted similar strikeout rates aren’t exactly inspiring, as that list includes Kyle Kendrick, Roberto Hernandez, and Jeremy Guthrie. Alvarez succeeds by limiting walks (his 4.3% walk rate was ninth-lowest) and inducing ground balls at about a 54 percent rate. It may be a stretch to expect him to post a sub-3.00 ERA again, but he should still wind up posting above-average numbers.

Prediction: The Nationals will run away with the NL East, but the Marlins and Mets will battle for the honor of being second-best in the division. The Marlins hang around in the NL Wild Card picture throughout most of September before narrowly missing out with 84 wins.

Giants remove pitching coach Dave Righetti

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After 18 years, 12 winning seasons, seven postseason runs and three World Championships, Dave Righetti is no longer a pitching coach for the Giants. He was removed from his post on Saturday, when the team announced a few reassignments as they shake up their coaching staff. Heading into the 2018 season, Righetti will serve as special assistant to general manager Bobby Evans, former bullpen coach Mark Gardner will step into a similar special assistant role to “assist in pitching evaluations,” and former assistant hitting coach Steve Decker will take a special assistant role in baseball operations.

According to MLB.com’s Chris Haft, Righetti was the longest-tenured pitching coach in the big leagues. He helped shape the careers of notable Giants’ aces like Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain — all Cy Young contenders (and, in Lincecum’s case, a two-time winner) at various points in their careers. He was there to assist Ryan Vogelsong during his stunning mid-career comeback in San Francisco. He helped newcomers like Chris Stratton and Ty Blach flourish even as the team stumbled to the bottom of the division. He was there to take the credit when a sterling rotation clinched the Giants’ 56-year, drought-snapping championship title in 2010 — and, when things went so horribly south in 2017, he took the blame as well.

Hardly anything went right for the Giants’ pitching staff in 2017. Madison Bumgarner was shelved after sustaining a serious shoulder injury in a dirt bike accident, Johnny Cueto couldn’t shake a cluster of blisters on his right hand and Mark Melancon found it difficult to justify a $62 million paycheck after pitching through an arm injury to four blown losses/saves and a 4.50 ERA. It would be a lot for any pitching coach to stay on top of, and given the team’s rapid descent from 2016 postseason contenders to last-place finishers in 2017, it’s not surprising that Evans felt the need to switch things up.

Successors have yet to be named for Righetti, Gardner or Decker, though Murray hears that the Giants could have interest in former major league pitching coach Jim Hickey. NBC Bay Area’s Alex Pavlovic adds that Evans is searching for someone to “put a new voice” on the pitching staff and will likely target someone who, like Righetti, brings considerable experience to the role.