2016 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 2016 season. Next up: The Miami Marlins.

The Marlins have, in the past, spent big on free agents in an attempt to show that they’re serious about competing on a regular basis. After the 2011 season, the Marlins signed starter Mark Buehrle (four years, $58 million), shortstop Jose Reyes (six years, $106 million), and then-closer Heath Bell (three years, $27 million). The trio spent just the one 69-93 season in Miami before Buehrle and Reyes were traded in a mega-deal with the Blue Jays. Bell was shipped to the Diamondbacks. Marlins fans have heard the “we’re serious” pitch before, so forgive them for not buying it.

The biggest sign that the Marlins are serious has nothing to do with player acquisition; rather, it’s manager and coach acquisition. The Marlins snapped up Don Mattingly as their new manager shortly after he and the Dodgers parted ways. They then hired baseball’s all-time leader in home runs, Barry Bonds, as the club’s batting coach. Jim Benedict left the Pirates and joined the front office as the vice president of pitching development. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports called him “the pitching whisperer”. The Marlins also signed starter Wei-Yin Chen to a five-year, $80 million deal, but he was the only major player acquisition of the off-season.

Elsewhere, the Marlins’ roster stayed about the same. J.T. Realmuto and Jeff Mathis will handle catching duties again, Justin Bour will operate full-time at first base after a great second-half showing in 2015, Dee Gordon reprises his role as leadoff hitter and second baseman, Adeiny Hechavarria is back at shortstop, and Martin Prado rounds out the infield at third base. In the outfield, the combination of Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Giancarlo Stanton will handle fly ball duty.

Stanton, of course, is hoping to have a fully healthy and productive season after his 2015 was cut short at the end of June due to a fractured hamate bone in his left hand. Hamate bone injuries notoriously sap hitters’ power for a while, but Stanton is considering a switch to an axe handle on his bat which he hopes will keep his hands healthy while maintaining his power swing. In parts of six seasons in the majors, Stanton has crossed 600 plate appearances only twice. His ability to do so in 2016 will be crucial to the Marlins’ viability.

Ozuna will arguably be the Marlins’ most interesting player to watch as owner Jeffrey Loria made no secret his desire to get the outfielder in a new uniform. But Mattingly and Bonds pushed back against the idea, so Ozuna has stayed put and has reportedly lost 20 pounds over the offseason.  The 25-year-old showed promise in 2014, bashing 23 home runs with a .772 OPS, but struggled last season and was demoted back to Triple-A New Orleans for 33 games. Ozuna’s ability to perform will not only decide his future with the team, but will either bolster or hinder the credibility of Mattingly and Bonds.

Chen slots in behind Jose Fernandez in the starting rotation, which otherwise isn’t terribly impressive. Fernandez, 23, made his season debut in early July following his recovery from Tommy John surgery, but was shut down a month later with a strained biceps. His numbers were characteristically excellent, as he posted a 2.92 ERA with a 79/14 K/BB ratio in 64 2/3 innings. Fernandez will be under an as yet undetermined innings limit to preserve his health and durability, but 150 elite innings would be dynamite for the club. Chen, meanwhile, is as steady as they come. The lefty has averaged close to four strikeouts for every one walk in each of the last two seasons with a 3.54 ERA in 2014 and 3.34 last season. Chen doesn’t have Fernandez’s upside, obviously, but the Marlins hope to bank on 30-plus starts with an ERA around 3.50 again.

Tom Koehler will slot into the middle of the rotation while Jarred Cosart, Edwin Jackson, Adam Conley, and Justin Nicolino battle it out for the back two spots. Expect Cosart and Jackson to be the favorites, but a strong spring showing can seal the deal for any of the aforementioned.

In the bullpen, A.J. Ramos figures to have a cinch on the closer’s role with Carter Capps undergoing Tommy John surgery. Ramos should have no trouble repeating his performance last season in which he saved 32 games in 38 chances with a 2.30 ERA and an 87/26 K/BB ratio in 70 1/3 innings. Bryan Morris and Mike Dunn will handle the seventh and eighth innings behind Ramos.

The keys to the Marlins’ success in 2016:

  • Mattingly, Bonds, and Benedict making an impact
  • Bounce-back efforts from Stanton and Fernandez
  • Ozuna turning the page from an awful 2015 season
  • The 3-4-5 spots in the rotation exceeding expectations
  • Getting from the middle innings to Ramos in the ninth inning with aplomb

Prediction: 84-78, third place in the NL East

Braves sweep Mets, take 2-game lead in East with 3 remaining

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ATLANTA — Matt Olson knew the Atlanta Braves were too talented to stay in a season-long slump.

That’s why no one panicked when the New York Mets’ division lead swelled to double digits in May. Now the Braves are on the cusp of another NL East title.

“It’s a clubhouse full of guys who want to win,” Olson said. “That’s all it’s been since the moment I walked in. That’s No. 1 on the program.”

Dansby Swanson and Olson homered for the third straight game, Travis d'Arnaud hit a go-ahead two-run single in the third inning, and Braves beat New York 5-3 on Sunday night, completing a three-game sweep of their NL East rival and taking a two-game lead in the division with three games to play.

The defending World Series champion Braves have been chasing the Mets the entire season. In the final series of the season, any combination of one Atlanta win or one Mets loss would give the Braves their fifth straight division title.

New York plays its final three games of the season against worst-in-the-majors Washington. Atlanta closes out the regular season with a three-game set in Miami. Should the season end Wednesday in a tie, Atlanta would win the division after claiming the season series 10-9 with Sunday’s victory.

“We’ve felt this confidence since the beginning of the year,” d’Arnaud said. “It just didn’t go our way early in the year, but pulling on the same rope, having each others’ backs, not trying to do too much. We’re just trying to play the game of baseball and have fun with it.”

The Braves won five of the last six games in the series, outscoring the Mets 42-19 over that stretch. New York had a 10 1/2-game lead on June 1 but now is the lower in the standings than at any point this season.

It was a lost weekend for New York, which came to Atlanta hoping to clinch its first division title since 2015. Instead, aces Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer lost Friday and Saturday before Chris Bassitt lasted just 2 2/3 innings on Sunday.

“We still have three games left in the regular season, we’re still going to the postseason, that doesn’t change, but there’s a lot of learning points that we can take from this series moving forward,” Mets slugger Pete Alonso said. “I thought we played well, but the Braves played better. They played excellent baseball this entire weekend.”

Swanson took Bassitt deep to right-center in the first with his 25th homer, and Atlanta took charge with a three-run third. Bassitt (15-9) issued a bases-loaded walk to Olson before d’Arnaud delivered a single up the middle to score Ronald Acuna Jr. and Austin Riley for a 4-3 lead. That chased Bassitt, who was charged with four runs, three hits and three walks.

Olson connected for his 33rd homer to make it 5-3 leading off the sixth, his 410-foot shot landing in the seats in right-center. Olson, in his first year with Atlanta, surpassed 100 RBIs for the second straight season.

“Everyone knew we were underperforming when we were flirting around that .500 range,” Olson said. “It was one of those things where it was trusting the talent we have and the guys in the clubhouse. Everybody was solid, head down, do your work, it’ll turn around and you wind up winning.”

Charlie Morton stranded runners on first and second in the first, but he gave up Daniel Vogelbach‘s 18th homer that tied it at 1 in the second. The righty struck out Francisco Lindor with runners on first and second to end the threat.

Jeff McNeil went deep off Morton in the third and Vogelbach followed with an RBI single to put the Mets up 3-1. Morton entered the game having allowed 28 homers, sixth-most in the NL.

Morton scuffled throughout his start, giving up three runs and nine hits in 4 1/3 innings as the 38-year-old made his first start since signing a $20 million, one-year contract to remain with Atlanta next season.

Dylan Lee (5-1) relieved Morton and pitched 1 1/3 innings, leaving after a walk to Brandon Nimmo with two outs in the sixth. Collin McHugh entered and struck out Francisco Lindor.

Raisel Iglesias faced four batters in the seventh, A.J. Minter faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen converted his third save of the series with a clean ninth.

Jansen leads the NL with 40 saves in 47 chances.

The Braves’ bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA last month, pitched 8 2/3 scoreless innings the last two nights.

BIG NUMBERS

Atlanta leads the NL with 241 homers. And the Braves have their first 100-victory season since 2003.

TWO, DARN HOT

McNeil went 3 for 5 and has multiple hits in five straight games. His average is .326, one point behind the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman for the NL batting title. In 23 career games at Truist Park, McNeil is hitting .395 with 12 runs, nine doubles, two homers, seven RBIs and four walks. … Jansen tied Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley for eighth place on the career list with 389. He’s also is the 10th closer to have four different seasons with at least 40 saves.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. … Braves 2B Ozzie Albies (broken right pinky finger) is still wearing a cast. … Braves RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique.

ATTENDANCE

The Braves drew 42,713 in their regular season finale, the club’s 42nd sellout of the season. Overall. that’s 3,129,931 for the season – and the most tickets sold since 2000. In 2019, the team’s last full season before the COVID-19 pandemic, Atlanta drew 2,655,100.

UP NEXT

Mets: RHP Carlos Carrasco (15-7, 3.95 ERA) will face Nationals RHP Cory Abbott (0-4, 5.11).

Braves: RHP Bryce Elder (2-3, 2.76 ERA) will face Marlins LHP Jesus Luzardo (3-7, 3.53).