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 2017 season. Next up: The Miami Marlins.
The narrative for the 2017 Marlins won’t be about the progression of Christian Yelich or Giancarlo Stanton having the 50-homer season everyone knows he’s capable of having. Unfortunately, the narrative will center around the team’s ability to compete without All-Star starter Jose Fernandez, who was tragically killed in a boating accident near the end of the regular season last September. The team had only six games left in the season but it now has a full 162-game slate during which someone will fill the charismatic leadership role Fernandez vacated.
The starting rotation is now led by newcomer and veteran Edinson Volquez, who signed a two-year, $22 million contract in November. Volquez breathed new life into his career after his 2014 stint with the Pirates, but regressed to a 5.37 ERA last season in 34 starts with the Royals. Kauffman Stadium played as a hitter-friendly park last year, according to Baseball Reference, while Marlins Park was more pitcher-friendly, so the switch should theoretically help Volquez’s numbers in 2017. But he’s also 33 years old and coming off of a season in which he posted his lowest strikeout rate since becoming an everyday pitcher.
Wei-Yin Chen returns for his second year with the Marlins. The lefty made 22 uninspiring starts last season, finishing with a 4.96 ERA and a 100/24 K/BB ratio in 123 1/3 innings. He missed time between late July and mid-September with an elbow ligament issue. If there’s reason for optimism going forward, it’s that he’s had a decent spring thus far, owning a 3.27 spring ERA as of this writing.
Tom Koehler fills out the middle of the rotation after putting up a 4.33 ERA with a 147/83 K/BB ratio in 176 2/3 innings last year. At this point, with over 700 major league innings under his belt, Koehler appears to have plateaued as a slightly above replacement level pitcher. He’ll typically throw five or six innings and give up three or four runs. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. There is value in dependability and he shouldn’t be a major concern for the Marlins.
Dan Straily joins the rotation after spending 2016 with the Reds. The 28-year-old right-hander hit the skids in 2014-15 but rebounded strong last year, finishing 14-8 with a 3.76 ERA and a 162/73 K/BB ratio in 191 1/3 innings. He gave up a league-high 31 homers, but that’s in some part attributable to Great American Ball Park. Some of those home runs become routine fly outs at Marlins Park. Straily had some good batted ball fortune so while one should expect his home run rate to decline in 2017, his BABIP should increase and will more or less even things out, so projecting him for an ERA around 4.00 seems reasonable.
Adam Conley will likely round out the rotation. At times, the 26-year-old lefty looked difficult to hit, but he was inconsistent. He held the opposition scoreless in eight of his 25 starts, but he also yielded four or more runs in eight starts as well. Ultimately, he finished with a 3.85 ERA and a 124/62 K/BB ratio in 133 1/3 innings. Conley will need to deflate that walk rate to make inroads on consistency but the southpaw should be up to the task.
In the bullpen, 30-year-old A.J. Ramos will return to closing. The club dabbled with Fernando Rodney in the closer’s role in the second half last year to disastrous effect. Ramos, when he had the ninth inning, saved 40 games with a 2.81 ERA and a 73/35 K/BB ratio in 64 innings, earning his first All-Star nomination in the process. Ramos has a great ability to miss bats, but he has iffy control and sometimes creates problems for himself. That being said, Ramos has a track record that speaks for itself as he carries a 2.62 ERA since becoming a bullpen mainstay in 2013.
37-year-old Brad Ziegler will set up for Ramos after closing for most of the past two seasons in Arizona, during which he compiled a 2.05 ERA. Ziegler doesn’t succeed by missing bats, though his 20.1 percent strikeout rate set a career-high last season. The sidewinding right-hander induces plenty of ground balls as his career 66.3 percent rate illustrates. In an era where many hitters are making a concerted effort to hit fly balls rather than line drives and ground balls, Ziegler’s ability to force hitters to roll over on his pitches becomes a major strength.
Kyle Barraclough, 26, isn’t yet a household name but it feels like he will be soon. Despite a rather high walk rate, the right-hander misses more than enough bats to make up for it. He racked up a 36.9 percent K-rate last year, the seventh-highest rate among qualified relievers. Barraclough has a 2.78 ERA over 97 career major league innings. Given the Marlins’ tendency to trade players before they become too expensive, it would not be surprising to see Ramos end up in a new uniform within the next two years with Barraclough ascending to the closer’s role.
The rest of the bullpen will be filled out by David Phelps, Junichi Tazawa, Dustin McGowan, Hunter Cervenka, Severino Gonzalez, and a revolving door of others between Triple-A and the majors. It doesn’t have the eye-popping star power of the Indians’ or Yankees’ bullpens, for instance, but it has the chance to be among the best in baseball.
Offensively, Stanton leads the way in right field. When he’s healthy, he indeed has the potential to smack 50 home runs, something no Marlin has ever done. The only problem is that Stanton has only played in 125 or more games in a season twice in his seven-year career. He has averaged 118 games in that span of time. Last year, in 119 games, Stanton hit .240/.326/.489 with 27 home runs and 74 RBI. The Marlins, who went 78-83 last year, have a chance to insert themselves into the NL East division race if Stanton is able to stay healthy this season.
Christian Yelich will handle center field after breaking out last season. He set career-bests in nearly every category, batting .298/.376/.483 with 21 home runs, 98 RBI, and 78 runs scored in 659 plate appearances. He won his first Silver Slugger and will soon make his first All-Star team. Yelich also has the potential to become an MVP.
Marcell Ozuna returns to left field. He’s had a shaky history with the team as owner Jeffrey Loria has very publicly not been a fan of his. If not for ex-hitting coach Barry Bonds and manager Don Mattingly, Loria may have traded Ozuna going into the 2016 season. Instead, Ozuna went on to have a productive year, batting .266/.321/.452 with 23 home runs and 76 RBI, making his first All-Star team in the process. He’s not a game-changer the way Stanton and Yelich are, but he’s a perfectly competent bat to have batting fifth or sixth in the lineup.
Ichiro Suzuki will serve as the fourth outfielder. Now 43 years old, Suzuki showed he still has plenty left in the tank, finishing last season batting .291 while swiping 10 bases in 365 PA. He isn’t likely to play in 143 games again, but he’s still a good fit in his current role.
Third base was supposed to be Martin Prado’s responsibility, but he suffered a Grade 1 strain of his right hamstring during the World Baseball Classic, so Derek Dietrich will handle the hot corner to open the season. The 33-year-old Prado is the better all-around player, but Dietrich can certainly hold his own after batting a productive .279/.374/.425 with 32 extra-base hits, 42 RBI, and 39 runs scored in 412 PA last season.
At shortstop, Adeiny Hechavarria is an offensive black hole but he makes up for it by being one of the best defensive shortstops this side of Andrelton Simmons. Hechavarria hit a measly .236/.283/.311 last season but still graded out at 1.2 Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball Reference. If the Marlins are really in the thick of things near the end of July, making an upgrade at shortstop might be a worthwhile endeavor.
Dee Gordon is once again at second base. He missed half the season last year due to a drug suspension and finished hitting a putrid-by-his-standards .268/.305/.335. In 2015, he led the majors with 205 hits and 58 stolen bases, and won the batting title in the NL with a .333 average. Some teams can afford to have one black hole in their lineup, but two makes it really tough to score runs consistently, to the Marlins can’t afford for Gordon to not hit again in 2017.
Justin Bour is now the everyday first baseman. The thought was that the Marlins would platoon him with a right-handed hitter, but that will not be the case. Bour last season hit .264/.349/.475 with 15 home runs and 51 RBI in 321 PA. After Stanton, Bour likely has the highest power potential in the lineup.
J.T. Realmuto will return as the first-string catcher with A.J. Ellis backing him up. Realmuto quietly put up a solid season, hitting .303/.343/.428 with 31 doubles, 11 home runs, 48 RBI, 60 runs scored, and 12 stolen bases in 545 PA. He was the only catcher in baseball to rack up double-digits in stolen bases last season.
The projection systems are pretty pessimistic on the Marlins’ ability to score runs. I’m a little more optimistic, but don’t have a lot of confidence in the starting rotation to pull its weight. That’s why I’m expecting them to fall a bit short of .500.
Prediction: 80-82 record, 3rd place in NL East