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.

MLBPA proposes 114-game season, playoff expansion to MLB

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ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports that the Major League Baseball Players Association has submitted a proposal to the league concerning the 2020 season. The proposal includes a 114-game season with an end date on October 31, playoff expansion for two years, the right for players to opt out of the season, and a potential deferral of 2020 salaries if the postseason were to be canceled.

Passan clarifies that among the players who choose to opt out, only those that are considered “high risk” would still receive their salaries. The others would simply receive service time. The union also proposed that the players receive a non-refundable $100 million sum advance during what would essentially be Spring Training 2.

If the regular season were to begin in early July, as has often been mentioned as the target, that would give the league four months to cram in 114 games. There would have to be occasional double-headers, or the players would have to be okay with few off-days. Nothing has been mentioned about division realignment or a geographically-oriented schedule, but those could potentially ease some of the burden.

Last week, the owners made their proposal to the union, suggesting a “sliding scale” salary structure. The union did not like that suggestion. Players were very vocal about it, including on social media as Max Scherzer — one of eight players on the union’s executive subcommittee — made a public statement. The owners will soon respond to the union’s proposal. They almost certainly won’t be happy with many of the details, but the two sides can perhaps find a starting point and bridge the gap. As the calendar turns to June, time is running out for the two sides to hammer out an agreement on what a 2020 season will look like.