Wait 'Til Next Year: Surprisingly competitive Marlins face crossroads
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it's only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait 'Til Next Year series.
Current Record: 75-82 (.478, fourth in the NL East)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 20
What went right in 2014: After losing 100 games last year and at least 90 in three straight seasons — including a cynically rapid buildup/teardown cycle that inaugurated their new ballpark — the 2014 Marlins showed themselves to be resilient, competitive and even entertaining despite a major league-low $45.8 million Opening Day payroll. They posted winning records in May and July, and were above .500 (64-63, 4 1/2 games out of a Wild Card spot) as late as Aug. 22.
The Marlins were never more entertaining than when it came to Giancarlo Stanton's Marlinator-spinning home runs and Jose Fernandez's strikeouts, which made the harsh endings to their seasons all the more painful. Before getting hit in the face by a pitch on Sept. 11, Stanton put himself in the NL MVP conversation by bashing a still-league leading 37 homers with a .288/.395/.555 line; his slugging percentage and 299 total bases remain tops in the circuit, his 6.5 Wins Above Replacement third. Fernandez dazzled through his first seven starts (1.74 ERA, 12.5 K/9) and looked like a Cy Young contender before foolishly attempting to pitch his way through elbow discomfort, blazing himself a path to the operating table for Tommy John surgery.
Elsewhere, second-year outfielders Marcell Ozuna (.269/.317/.455 with 23 homers) and Christian Yelich (.290/.368/.413), both in their early twenties, have shown themselves to be cornerstones for the future, adding outstanding defense to their strong offensive performances en route to 4.4 and 4.0 WAR, respectively. Bargain basement free agent Casey McGehee hit .319/.386/.391 in the first half, earning a spot in the All-Star Final Vote.
Groundball-generating 24-year-old Henderson Alvarez built on his 2013 season-ending no-hitter with a strong campaign (2.70 ERA, 4.2 WAR). Twenty-eight-year-old righty Tom Koehler emerged as a rotation staple, and Jarred Cosart made an impressive showing across a nine-start sample after being acquired from the Astros. The bullpen, headed by closer Steve Cishek (38-for-42 in save opportunities) was quietly one of the league's most effective via a 3.19 FIP, third in the NL.
What went wrong in 2014: More than just the cruel endings to the seasons of Fernandez and Stanton, for starters. Every offensive regular besides the aforementioned trio of outfielders is currently carrying an OPS+ below 100, with McGehee down to 99 via a brutal second half. At 1.2 WAR, he's fourth among the team's position players, and no other regular is above 0.3.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, their big free agent signing from the winter and the only Marlin signed through 2016, has hit just .222/.322/.367 en route to 0.1 WAR — a figure that doesn't include his MLB-worst pitch framing (-19.8 runs). First baseman Garrett Jones (.242/.307/.408, -1.2 WAR) was predictably terrible, and he's signed through 2015 at a cost of $5 million. Rafael Furcal, signed for $3.5 million, played in just nine games between two epic stints on the disabled list for a left hamstring strain. Middle infielders Donovan Solano and Adeiny Hechavarria didn't field well enough to offset light sticks, combining for 0.3 WAR; in fact, the entire defense's .676 defensive efficiency ranks second-to-last in the league. Meanwhile, the bench — primarily Jeff Mathis, Jeff Baker, Reed Johnson, Ed Lucas and Jordany Valdespin — may have been the majors' worst, no surprise given the team's shoestring budget.
On the pitching side, former prospect Jacob Turner, the key return piece in the 2012 Anibal Sanchez-Omar Infante trade, pitched to a 5.97 ERA before being traded to the Cubs. Nathan Eovaldi has been peppered for a .325 BABIP and a 4.44 ERA despite just a 3.38 FIP, and after Fernandez went down, long-lost retreads Randy Wolf and Brad Penny passed through and were predictably hammered. In all, the team's 4.16 runs allowed ranks 11th in the league.
Overall outlook: While they've clinched their fifth straight sub-.500 record, the Marlins are showing signs that their post-Ozzie Guillen/Jose Reyes/etc. rebuilding effort is taking hold; they'll finish with their best record since 2010. With two more years of club control over Stanton and four over Fernandez, they're assured of some star power in the near term, and in Yelich, Ozuna and Alvarez, they have the start of a strong supporting cast. Amid an NL East where the Phillies have aged less than gracefully, the Mets have refused to spend, and the Braves have spent poorly enough to cost a general manager his job, they could be the division's second-best team. Heck, they're just 1 1/2 games out of second place at this writing.
At some point, though, the Marlins will either have to spend heavily to keep their two superstars or trade them and start the rebuilding cycle anew — and Loria's track record suggests they'll be just as happy to do the latter, particularly given that Stanton, at least, doesn't seem to be in a hurry to commit to a team with such a spotty track record. Given a farm system that has been depleted by graduations — Baseball America ranked the organization 27th this spring, down from fifth last year, and they lacked a player in their midseason Top 50 prospects list — they'll need to woo plenty of veterans who will have to ignore the fates of Reyes and Mark Buehrle in order to take the Fish's bait. So while it may be possible to remain competitive, taking the next step toward dominance will be a much tougher task.