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