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2018 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 2018 season. Next up: The Miami Marlins.

The outfield trio of Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, and Christian Yelich combined to hit 114 home runs and drive in 337 runs for the Marlins last season. The Marlins thanked them for their contributions by trading all three of them in separate trades to the Yankees, Cardinals, and Brewers, respectively. The club also sent second baseman Dee Gordon to the Marlins.

The word “fire sale” is strongly associated with the Marlins to this day despite new ownership – Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter — having taken over. The club opened the 2017 campaign with a payroll north of $115 million and ended the season around $155 million. According to Cot’s Contracts, the Marlins are poised to open the 2018 season below $90 million in obligations.

In the Stanton trade, the Marlins acquired prospects Jorge Guzman and Jose Devers as well as Starlin Castro from the Yankees. MLB Pipeline rates Guzman as the No. 4 prospect in the Marlins’ system now, and Devers at No. 25. Ozuna brought back from the Cardinals Magneuris Sierra, Daniel Castano, Zac Gallen, and Sandy Alcantara. Alcantara is now No. 3 in the Marlins’ system followed by Sierra at No. 7, and Gallen at No. 14. From the Brewers, Yelich returned to the Marlins Lewis Brinson (No. 1), Monte Harrison (No. 2), Isan Diaz (No. 8), and Jordan Yamamoto (No. 23). Gordon brought to Miami from Seattle Nick Neidert (No. 10), Christopher Torres (No. 18), and Robert Dugger. The club also sent reliever A.J. Ramos to the Mets for Merandy Gonzalez (No. 16) and Ricardo Cespedes. While many thought the Marlins could’ve done better, especially in the Stanton trade, the farm system has been replenished in a big way.

Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus are projecting the Marlins to be the worst team in the National League, pegging the club at 64 and 66 wins, respectively. As we go through the roster position by position, it will be easy to see why the club isn’t likely to crack 70 wins.

Dan Straily will likely get the nod to start on Opening Day for the Marlins, leading a rotation that will also include Jose Urena and some combination of Adam Conley, Justin Nicolino, Dillon Peters, Jarlin Garcia, Chris O’Grady, and Odrisamer Despaigne. Straily is a perfectly fine starter, owning a 4.25 ERA across 633 1/3 innings in the majors, but he’s not the type of pitcher one often thinks about starting on Opening Day, especially when the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, and Max Scherzer also get those honors. It speaks to the quality of the Marlins’ rotation.

Urena’s spot in the rotation is pretty much guaranteed after he compiled a 3.82 ERA across 28 starts and six relief appearances last year, fanning 113 batters in 169 2/3 innings. His defense-independent stats don’t scream “upside” but he’s as close to solid as the Marlins are going to get right now without bringing in a free agent.

Garcia could find his way into the rotation. Though he posted a meager 4.73 ERA in 53 1/3 innings of relief last year, the Marlins like him as a starter. The lefty started during most of his minor league career. Conley, Nicolino, and Despaigne represent low-upside retreads, but the Marlins may simply value their ability to eat innings more than anything else.

With Ramos gone, Brad Ziegler will return to the closer’s role for the Fish. The sidewinding right-hander had been relatively consistent over his career until last season. He finished with a 4.79 ERA and a paltry 26/16 K/BB ratio in 47 innings. Ziegler, of course, lives and dies based on his ability to induce ground balls rather than missing bats. The Marlins are likely hoping Ziegler rebounds to have a great first half so he can be traded to a contender. In that event, or if he struggles, Kyle Barraclough or Drew Steckenrider would likely be promoted to the closer’s role.

Barraclough has been terrific for the Marlins in 163 innings of relief work over the last three seasons despite a rather high walk rate at 14.5 percent. He fans hitters often (31.7%) with a mid-90’s fastball and slider combination. Steckenrider made his big league debut last year, fanning 54 and walking 18 with a 2.34 ERA in 34 2/3 innings of relief, showcasing similar upside as Barraclough.

The bullpen will be rounded out by Junichi Tazawa, Nick Wittgren, and likely some of the aforementioned rotation candidates that didn’t make the cut.

J.T. Realmuto will handle things behind the plate. He ranked among the league’s best catchers last year, batting .278/.332/.451 with 17 home runs and 65 RBI in 532 plate appearances. Baseball Reference credited him with 3.6 Wins Above Replacement. Unsurprisingly, the Marlins have received plenty of trade interest in Realmuto throughout the offseason, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he were dealt by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Tomas Telis would get bumped up into a starting role if Realmuto is traded or gets injured followed by Bryan Holaday and Chad Wallach.

At first base, Justin Bour will return. Last year, he hit .289/.366/.536 with 25 home runs and 83 RBI in 429 PA. Assuming he can stay healthy and productive, he’ll get regular playing time all year. The Marlins may also be inclined to trade him if the right offer comes along.

Veteran Starlin Castro will handle things at second base after spending the last two years in the Bronx. A four-time All-Star, Castro hit .300 last season with 16 home runs and 63 RBI in 473 PA. His defense has always left something to be desired but he’s overall a serviceable player. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Marlins may be enticed to trade him by the end of July.

Shortstop J.T. Riddle is still on the mend after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder last summer. Miguel Rojas will handle the position until Riddle is ready to go. In his first season in the big leagues, Riddle cobbled together a disappointing .637 OPS across 247 PA. Rojas had a solid .736 OPS.

Martin Prado, poised to begin his 13th major league season at the age of 34, will be the club’s every day third baseman. He missed time last season due to knee and hamstring injuries, undergoing surgery to repair his knee. It’s still not known if he’ll be ready by Opening Day, in which case Brian Anderson would likely handle the position in his stead. In 2016, Prado played in 153 games and batted .305. He’s not too far separated from being healthy and productive. If he has a bounce-back season, Prado is yet another player who could be dealt to a contender this summer.

The Marlins’ new-look outfield now features Derek Dietrich in left and Cameron Maybin in center. Dietrich is no stranger to the outfield, but he’s primarily been an infielder during his career. In other words, he’s not the most ideal candidate to handle the position, but the Marlins are just looking for placeholders. Dietrich has a solid bat, having compiled a .759 OPS across his five-year career, but the standard for offense is higher in left field than it is at second base. Dietrich is likely to end up closer to replacement level as a result of the position change, not that it matters to a team expected to struggle to reach 70 wins. The Marlins may choose to platoon Dietrich with Scott Van Slyke.

Maybin, 30, makes his return to the Marlins. He was traded by the Tigers to the Marlins back in 2007 in the Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis deal. Maybin found himself on the world champion Astros last season when they selected him off waivers from the Angels on August 31. Overall, he hit a meager .228 with 10 home runs.

Brinson may be playing his way onto the Marlins’ Opening Day roster. In 22 at-bats, the 23-year-old has nine hits including five doubles and a home run. Sierra may also find himself in the Miami outfield sooner rather than later.

The Marlins overall are going to be hard to watch this season. Jeter and Sherman took a roster that was only a couple of rotation arms away from being competitive and stripped it down for parts. It may now be several years before the Marlins are competitive again. At the very least, though, the minor league system has been replenished. But at this point, Marlins fans may be tired of having to look forward.

Prediction: 62-100, fifth place in the NL East.