Examining the team's MLB season ahead.
The Marlins believe — like they did last year — that they can compete for the postseason in 2017.
This time, however, they’ll have to do so without the late Jose Fernandez, one of the game’s top pitchers who died in a boating accident in late September. As a result, an already suspect rotation enters the season without a bona fide ace.
But Miami has faith in its core of position players, particularly after career years from outfielder Christian Yelich and catcher J.T. Realmuto. The Marlins boast one of the top outfields with Yelich and All-Stars Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton in the middle of the order. Plus, the back end of the bullpen piles up strikeouts with the trio of A.J. Ramos, David Phelps and Kyle Barraclough.
Leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline, Miami was in the thick of the National League Wild Card race and sought outside help by dealing top prospects for reliever Fernando Rodney and starter Andrew Cashner. Neither move panned out.
Then the injury bug hit and exposed a lack of depth. Stanton, first baseman Justin Bour, lefthanders Adam Conley and Wei-Yin Chen, Ramos, utility player Derek Dietrich and Phelps had overlapping disabled list stints during the second half.
The high-water mark of nine games above .500 quickly turned into three games below with a 32–41 record after the All-Star break, though the Marlins stayed in the race until the final weeks of the season.
Chen, the club’s key offseason signing in ’15 and the ’16 Opening Day starter, went 5–5 with a career-worst 4.96 ERA in 22 starts and missed nearly two months of the season with an elbow sprain. Conley was putting together a solid first full season in the big leagues until landing on the DL with left third finger tendonitis, finishing 8–6 with a 3.85 ERA in 25 starts and often flirting with no-hitters. Tom Koehler, who has made at least 31 starts in each of the last three seasons (just the third Marlins pitcher to do so), is the other returning starter. Free-agent signees and former All-Stars Edinson Volquez (10–11, 5.37 ERA in ’16) and Jeff Locke (9–8, 5.44 ERA) reunite with vice president of pitching development Jim Benedict, who worked with them in Pittsburgh. The Marlins also acquired Dan Straily from Cincinnati in a trade for three prospects. Straily won a career-high 14 games with a 3.76 ERA for the Reds last season while pitching nearly 200 innings.
As good of a 2015 as Miami’s double-play duo had, it was quite the opposite in ’16. MLB suspended Dee Gordon, fresh off numerous accolades and a contract extension, in late April for 80 games for violating its PED policy. Upon his return in late July, it took some time for Gordon to find his groove. When he did, the two-time All-Star stole 14 bases in September — tied for most in the majors — and provided the most memorable moment of the season with his upper-deck leadoff homer in honor of Fernandez. After setting career highs in various offensive categories in ’15, Adeiny Hechavarria couldn’t find his swing last season, batting .236 with just three homers and 38 RBIs. He also wasn’t an NL Gold Glove Award finalist for the first time in two years.
Martin Prado led the majors with a .368 average with runners in scoring position among players with as at least 140 at bats in those situations. More important, he became the unofficial captain of a team that turned to him for leadership and professionalism. The Marlins wanted continuity at the hot corner and re-signed him to a three-year, $40 million deal. Bour, meanwhile, proved Miami right as the club’s first baseman until spraining his ankle on July 2. At the time, he was batting .268 with 15 homers and 46 RBIs in 68 games, mainly in a lefty-righty platoon with Chris Johnson. The Marlins are considering using Realmuto at first every so often to rest his legs.
The Marlins already felt they had the best trio in baseball, and 2016 helped that case. Yelich captured an NL Silver Slugger Award, shattering career highs in hits (172), doubles (38), homers (21), RBIs (98) and OPS (.859), among others. Ozuna made his first All-Star team, and despite tailing off in the second half, still finished with 23 homers and 76 RBIs. Stanton, who was scuffling at the plate before a groin injury kept him out for more almost a month, still slugged a team-high 27 home runs.
Realmuto, a former high school shortstop, has the tools to be a star. In his first two full seasons as backstop, he has recorded 268 hits, 52 doubles and 21 homers. He also showed improvement behind the plate, throwing out 28 baserunners, tied for fourth in the majors. His backup will be A.J. Ellis, who reunites with manager Don Mattingly, after Jeff Mathis signed with the D-backs following four seasons in Miami.
Dietrich’s bat allowed the Marlins to stay in the hunt despite Gordon’s absence. Once thought of as a defensive liability, Dietrich committed just four errors at second and none in his stops at first, third and left field. With Hechavarria’s struggles, Miguel Rojas tied a career high in starts at short (26). Known for his glove, he learned to play first and often entered as a late-game defensive replacement. Ichiro Suzuki showed flashes of his old self, finishing with a .291 average and surpassing the 3,000-hit mark, making it a no-brainer to pick up his club option.
In his first season at the helm, Mattingly certainly left his mark. Both he and the players never got too high or too low, especially during a season with plenty of unexpected challenges thrown their way. Mattingly’s former teammate, Mike Pagliarulo, is in as hitting coach. Former Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez replaces Lenny Harris as third-base coach. Bench coach Tim Wallach returns after receiving interest for various vacant managerial jobs.
Whether the Marlins snap baseball’s second-longest postseason drought (13; the Mariners’ streak stands at 15) depends upon their success at resolving the rotation. In the end, the biggest factor will be health. The Marlins were at the top of the Wild Card standings until injuries became too much to overcome with their lack of depth.