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Expect lots of losses and plenty of empty seats in Marlins Park this season
Talk about a nasty case of buyer’s remorse. In a dizzying span of less than a year, the Miami Marlins: Went through a ballyhooed rebranding. Spent $191 million on three big-name free agents. Moved into a beautiful new downtown ballpark. Served as reality-show fodder for Showtime. Underperformed miserably. Fired manager Ozzie Guillen with three years left on his contract. Hired a rookie manager (Mike Redmond) out of A-ball. And, last but not least: Tore down their roster via a 12-player mega-dump deal with the Blue Jays. Just like old times, eh? South Florida baseball fans, at least what’s left of them, reacted with predictable rage after seeing five proven big-leaguers, including Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, shipped off for a boatload of mostly prospects. Redmond will be asked to pull a Joe Girardi (circa 2006) and whip a bunch of young prospects into a competent big-league ballclub as quickly as possible. Good luck.
Ricky Nolasco, the ace by default, wanted out in the immediate aftermath of the blockbuster deal. The Marlins refused to accommodate him, mostly because Nolasco, who turned 30 this offseason, was the only member of their projected rotation with more than 19 career wins. Plus, if they traded Nolasco and his $11.5 million salary, their net payroll, which opened last season at a franchise-record $112 million, would drop to less than a third of that figure. Henderson Alvarez, who pitched to a 4.85 ERA while spending last season in the Jays’ rotation, is a notable step down from the fellow Venezuelan righthander he essentially replaces (Anibal Sanchez). Young righthander Nate Eovaldi, who came over in a July deal with the Dodgers, has a lot to learn and will likely get 30-plus starts’ worth of education this year. At least he showed signs of sustainable effectiveness during a late-season audition. Wade LeBlanc, the former Padres lefty with 19 wins in five seasons to his credit, figures to occupy one slot. Veteran Kevin Slowey, who last pitched in the majors in 2011 with the Twins, has impressed enough this spring to earn a shot to start the season. But Jacob Turner, acquired from the Tigers last season, will be a key cog in the rotation in the future. He will get a call at some point this season.
Steve Cishek was a revelation for the Marlins in the second half of the 2012 season. The young sidewinder blew just one save after taking over for Heath Bell at the All-Star break. That was enough to convince the Marlins to dump Bell on the Diamondbacks — he wound up costing them $14 million for one horrible season — while turning over the closer’s reins to the former fifth-round draft pick. Sinkerballer Ryan Webb should emerge as the top option for the eighth inning, while Mike Dunn is the best option from the left side. It’s pretty much a no-name bullpen, but after the Marlins relief corps blew 22 saves a year ago, the team is willing to take its chances on some kids. Veterans Jon Rauch and Chad Qualls were signed late and bring some experience and stability.
The Marlins have had more than their share of standout shortstops in their brief-but-volatile history. Edgar Renteria and Alex Gonzalez each helped them win a World Series, while Hanley Ramirez and Reyes were more noted for their offensive prowess. Now along comes Adeiny Hechavarria, the Cuban defector who should start building his Gold Glove collection in the not-too-distant future. At least that’s what the Marlins are hoping after making him the centerpiece of their deal with the Blue Jays. Hechavarria may hit eventually as well, but so far his bat has only been truly lively in the light air of Las Vegas and the Pacific Coast League. Returning at second base is Donovan Solano, who shined with the Marlins after the Cardinals let him leave as a minor league free agent last winter. The 25-year-old Colombian hit .295 in 285 at-bats with the Marlins in his first season in the big leagues. Solano’s step forward made veteran Omar Infante expendable.
You wouldn’t want to run a relay race with these guys. Logan Morrison, moving back to his original position of first base after spending the past few years in left field, is coming off another arthroscopic knee surgery. When healthy, he’s a defensive weapon at first. Getting his legs underneath him also might help reverse a two-year decline at the plate. But he won’t be near full speed by Opening Day, so Casey Kotchman will likely start the season at first. But Morrison should be back by the end of April. At third base, the Marlins are betting $2.75 million that Placido Polanco’s back woes will somehow subside at age 37. Polanco, who attended college in Miami, has played in the postseason five times. That probably won’t be happening again this season.
If the Marlins were as smart as they seem to believe they are, they would have locked up All-Star right fielder Giancarlo Stanton with a long-term deal before dealing away half their roster. Instead, the burgeoning young slugger ripped the organization in the aftermath of its latest Great Selloff. Stanton, who already has 93 home runs in three seasons, can’t be a free agent until after 2016. However, further static from Stanton, along with what promises to be knee-buckling trade offers from lustful suitors, could accelerate his inevitable departure considerably. Juan Pierre, one of the heroes of the 2003 World Series team, is back to play left field. He signed a one-year, $1.6 million deal after a solid bounce-back year (.307 with 37 stolen bases) with the Phillies. Journeyman Justin Ruggiano looks like the smart bet in center field after a breakthrough season a year ago. The former Tampa Bay Ray hit .313 with 13 home runs in only 288 at-bats in his first season with the Marlins.
John Buck never could hit enough to justify that $6 million annual salary. Maybe, the Marlins figure, they will fare better with a platoon of young Rob Brantly, who came over from the Tigers in the Sanchez/Infante deal, and veteran backup Jeff Mathis. Brantly has a sweet lefty stroke and some pop. Unfortunately, Mathis is pretty much all mitt at this point. His combined OPS in eight big-league seasons is a putrid .570, and he doesn’t do much better against lefties than he does against righthanders. Mathis fractured his collarbone early in spring training, so youngster Kyle Skipworth could begin the season as Brantly’s backup.
Ruggiano will get some competition in center field from Gorkys Hernandez and even Chris Coghlan. Hernandez is out of options after enjoying a big winter season back home in Venezuela. Veteran reserve Greg Dobbs is an excellent safety net for those often-hobbled starters at the corner infield spots.
At the press conference to introduce new manager Mike Redmond, Marlins baseball czar Larry Beinfest admitted the organization had strayed from the Marlins Way — a term that he defined as “outperforming our challenges.” Exactly what challenges the Marlins still have now that they’re playing in a publicly funded, $515 million, retractable-roof ballpark was unclear. Redmond, a key backup on the 2003 World Series champions, has the right blend of personality and energy to get the most out of this young group. Even so, most expect a 100-loss season and a third straight year in the basement of the National League East.
Say this for the Marlins: They don’t do anything halfway. In the abstract, what they have attempted in churning nearly their entire roster since the middle of last season makes some sense. It’s probably the quickest way to return to consistent playoff contention and eventually end a nine-year playoff drought that now ranks as the fifth-longest in baseball. However, there’s that nagging little piece about $360 million in public money going toward a ballpark that was supposed to help them compete with richer clubs in more traditional baseball markets. The Marlins aren’t giving any of that money back, but they did find a way to offload more than $236 million in future contract obligations since the middle of last season. In the process, they just may have destroyed once and for all the fragile connection that had existed between South Florida and its twice-crowned baseball club.
LF Juan Pierre (L)
Veteran slugged just .190 against lefties, .405 against righties for the Phillies in 2012.
3B Placido Polanco (R)
Missed a combined 112 games the past two seasons with the Phillies, mostly due to back issues.
RF Giancarlo Stanton (R)
Hit 494-foot homer at Coors Field last year, longest in the big leagues since 2009. Probably feels like the Lone Ranger in Miami now.
C Rob Brantly (L)
Already owns big-league home runs off of Stephen Strasburg and reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey.
CF Justin Ruggiano (R)
Career .226 hitter in parts of three big-league seasons before shocking breakout with Marlins last year.
2B Donovan Solano (R)
Made just two errors in 58 games at second base after taking over for the traded Omar Infante.
1B Casey Kotchman (L)
His averaged dropped 77 points from 2011 to 2012, but he’s a stellar defender and capable off the bench once Logan Morrison is healthy.
SS Adeiny Hechavarria (R)
Career OBP of .286 in 172 minor league games outside hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
C Jeff Mathis (R)
Has a .198 batting average in nearly 1,600 career plate appearances in the majors. Makes his living with his defense and arm. A broken collarbone early in spring training has opened the door for Kyle Skipworth to start the season as the backup.
3B Greg Dobbs (L)
Started a combined 166 games the past two seasons for the Marlins.
UT Chris Coghlan (L)
Former NL Rookie of the Year remains on the radar due to his versatility.
1B-OF Logan Morrison (L)
Reached base at .436 clip after the count ran full in 2012, with two hits, 15 walks in 39 plate appearances. Should be in the lineup at either first base or left field every day once his knee is sound.
RH Ricky Nolasco
Has posted an ERA lower than 4.48 just once in seven big-league seasons.
RH Henderson Alvarez
Only two big leaguers (Clayton Richard and Rick Porcello) allowed more hits than Alvarez in 2012.
RH Nate Eovaldi
Needs 5,613 more strikeouts to catch the only other big leaguer from Alvin (Texas) High School (Nolan Ryan).
LH Wade LeBlanc
Turned in quality starts in just three of nine late-season opportunities.
RH Kevin Slowey
Hasn’t pitched in majors since 2011, but was impressive in spring training.
RH Steve Cishek (Closer)
Converted 14-of-15 save opportunities after replacing Heath Bell at midseason.
RH Ryan Webb
Sinkerballer posted a nearly two-to-one groundball/flyball ratio (47-to-26) after Aug. 1.
RH Jon Rauch
Has thrown at least 50 innings every year since 2006.
LH Mike Dunn
Career walk rate is 5.7 per nine innings in parts of four big-league seasons.
RH A.J. Ramos
Struck out 13 and allowed eight hits in 9.1 innings as a rookies last season.
RH Chad Qualls
Veteran allowed 12 of 27 inherited runners to score while logging 52.1 innings for Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the Yankees.
RH John Maine
Will serve as long relief man — and probably gets lots of work.