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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.

World Series Preview: Marquee starting pitching matchups lead the way

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The Astros were the best team in baseball in 2019, winning 107 games, so everyone expected them to be here. As you’ve heard a thousand times by now the Nationals started out poorly in 2019, standing at 19-31 in late May. After that, however, they went on a 74-38 tear in 112 games. A tear which, if extrapolated to 162 games is a . . . 107-win pace.

Which is to say that, despite whatever the oddsmakers are telling you, this is not quite the mismatch some may want to make it out to be. The Astros are a great team, no question, but the Nationals as they stand right now are a strong match for them. If you doubt it, go ask the Dodgers and Cardinals about whether Washington played like a 93-win Wild Card team when they met in the earlier rounds.

No matter how you think the teams matchup overall, however, you can’t help but love the matchups between the clubs’ starting pitchers.

The Astros feature the top two Cy Young candidates in the American league in Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander and feature a third starter, Zack Greinke, who would be most teams’ ace. The Nationals, meanwhile, counter with Max Scherzer, who won the Cy Young in 2016 and 2017, finished in second place last year and, before for an injury this season, was a strong contender to take home the hardware again. After him comes Stephen Strasburg, also a 2019 Cy Young candidate, and Patrick Corbin, who was last offseason’s big pickup and who won 14 games and posted an ERA+ of 141 this season. It may be the Era of Bullpenning and all of that, but this Fall Classic looks to be a throwback to a time when — gasp! — starting pitchers mattered.

Here’s how it all breaks down:

THE ROTATIONS

We just listed the big names. The exact order in which they appear is not yet officially known but you’ll color me shocked if Game 1 isn’t Max Scherzer vs. Gerrit Cole, Game 2 isn’t Stephen Strasburg vs. Justin Verlander, and Game 3 isn’t Zack Greinke vs. Patrick Corbin. In Game 4 the Nats will likely go with the hot Aníbal Sánchez who, if he stays on his game like he has been of late, gives them depth the Astros can’t quite match. Brad Peacock or “Bullpen” could get the ball for A.J. Hinch in Game 4, depending on the circumstances of the series at that point.

As for Game 1, Scherzer is coming off two strong postseason outings, allowing one run on five hits with 18 strikeouts in 14 innings in those starts. Cole was somewhat human in his last start, walking five guys. But, um, yeah, he still tossed seven shutout innings. It seems like all he has done since before Memorial day is toss seven or eight shutout innings or something close to it.

We simply couldn’t ask for a better head-to-head matchup to start this bad boy. There isn’t a hitter on either of these teams happy about who they’ll have to face in this series.

THE LINEUPS

Saturday night’s José Altuve walkoff blast notwithstanding, the Astros’ mighty offense has been somewhat less mighty over the past couple of weeks, averaging just 3.7 runs per game and posting a .645 team OPS. A lot of that was due to the scads of fresh and strong bullpen arms the Rays and Yankees trotted out, but it’s not like things will get easier, at least against Washington’s starting pitching. The Astros had timely hitting — and some big home runs — as they made their way to the World Series, but they’ll definitely need to rattle the ball off the walls and get on base at a higher clip like they did in the regular season if they want to win this thing. To do so, I don’t suspect A.J. Hinch will do much shuffling or fiddling with his lineup — his dudes are his dudes — he’ll just have to hope that they snap out of their relative funk and remind everyone that, when everyone is healthy on this club, there is no better offense in baseball.

Washington’s lineup was nowhere near as fearsome during the regular season but it was the second-best unit in the National League, so they’re no slouches. Like the Astros, they have not exactly set the world ablaze offensively in the playoffs, posting a team OPS about a hundred points lower than their regular season mark. Also, like the Astros, they’ve had some huge hits at great times, as do all teams that get this far. Luck and good timing matter a whole heck of a lot in October.

Editor’s note: Need World Series tickets? Click here to see the Nats try to stop the Astros

A bit of a wild card here: the de-juiced ball everyone is talking about. While the Nats, like everyone else, hit a lot more homers in 2019, they were somewhat less reliant on homers than a lot of other winning teams, finishing only sixth in that category in the NL. The Astros were third in the AL and might’ve come close to matching New York and Minnesota’s totals if they didn’t have so many injuries to key offensive performers in the first half. Which is to say that the dead ball’s taking away of a few feet of flight from equally-struck balls probably hurts the Astros a bit more than the Nats, even if the Astros hitters are better on average.

One can overstate all that, of course. At the end of the day both of these teams have MVP-candidates — Alex Bregman for Houston, Anthony Rendon for Washington — and a good supporting cast of thumpers like Juan Soto, José Altuve, Yordan Álvarez and hot-in-October Howie Kendrick, who will likely see DH action in the games in Houston. Ultimately it will come down, as always, to who is hotter over the next 4-7 games.

THE BULLPENS

The bullpen was the Nationals’ biggest weakness all season long. In the NLDS against the Dodgers Dave Martinez masked the problem by creatively deploying starting pitchers in relief, praying a bit, and watching it work. in the NLCS they so thoroughly steamrolled the Cardinals that it didn’t truly matter, though they did get some good innings from guys not named Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Meaning that, heck, you may even see Fernando Rodney and Tanner Rainey in games that aren’t blowouts. Either way, the week off the Nationals have been given by wrapping up the NLCS so quickly means that every arm is fresh, with extra rest even, so the team’s biggest weakness is about as contained at the outset as it can be. As suggested above, the deeper Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Sánchez can go, the better.

Houston’s bullpen has allowed 16 earned runs in 35.1 innings this postseason (4.08 ERA). This after having the third-best bullpen ERA in all of baseball during the regular season (3.75). Sample sizes are obviously an issue here. As is the class of competition. They were more than capable of getting the job done during the ALDS and their failures — like Roberto Osuna‘s blown save in Game 6 — were either contained by the work of others or led to less-than-fatal wounds. They simply have better arms that Washington does down there even if, as is the case with the Nats, they’ll hope to need them as little as possible.

THE MANAGERS

A.J. Hinch has hoisted a trophy before and rarely harms his team. Dave Martinez learned over the course of the season that the less he does the better. Without putting too fine a point on it, if it comes down to a chess match, it’s advantage: Astros. At this point Martinez simply needs to let his horses run and muster enough will to pull them out of the race if they’re tired. That’s easier said than done when it’s, say, Max Scherzer. His arm could be hanging by frayed tendons and he’d still probably glare at Martinez if he walked out to pull him.

THE HISTORY

There is virtually none. These teams share a spring training complex but they have not faced each other in interleague play since 2017. A host of players on each squad has never faced the pitchers on the other. In addition to starting pitchers being so critical here, add “NL vs. AL, in a matchup of unknowns” to the list of things that make this Fall Classic a throwback to olden days.

If we did the usual “Advantage: [TEAM]” for every one of those categories, I feel like we’d probably end up with the Astros coming out on top in each of them. The closest is probably the rotation, with the top-end talent of Cole, Verlander and Greinke outweighing the four-deep depth the Nats have at the moment. But as the earlier rounds showed, it’s not as much of an advantage as you might think and being able to run four starters out there whom you trust matters a lot.

Which is to say that, yeah, I think the Astros are the better team. They’re better in record, better on paper and should be favored. But I don’t think they’re overwhelming favorites. And I don’t think it could or should be considered a massive upset if this better-than-most-people think Nats team comes out on top. I feel like this will be a very, very even and competitive series, in fact.