After a surprising run at a playoff spot in 2014, the Marlins took some big steps this winter toward building a regular contender. But can they keep that up?
With little less than four weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
2014 Results: 77-85 (.469), fourth place in NL East (Hot Stove Preview)
Key Departures: RHP Anthony DeSclafani, RHP Nathan Eovaldi, IF Rafael Furcal, RHP Kevin Gregg, RHP Chris Hatcher, RHP Andrew Heaney, IF Kiké Hernandez, OF Reed Johnson, 1B Garrett Jones, RHP Dan Jennings, 3B Casey McGehee, RHP Brad Penny, IF Jordany Valdespin
Outside of the Windy City teams, arguably no one has made a bigger splash this winter than the Marlins. Even including the Cubs and White Sox, no team has worked harder to change the way it's perceived throughout the baseball world. The Marlins' effort to buy credibility via Giancarlo Stanton's record-setting 13-year, $325 million contract extension and a fortification of their young lineup and rotation may or may not change anyone's mind, particularly so long as Jeffrey Loria is still the owner. But at the very least, the two-decade cycle of booms and busts is clearly tilted toward the former for the coming year. After going 62-100 in 2013 (their worst showing since 1998) and then climbing to 77-85 last year, the Marlins are again ready to contend for a postseason spot.
Unlike their last, disastrous bid at doing that prior to the 2012 season, Miami hasn't gone the expensive free agent route this time. New first baseman Michael Morse, who signed a two-year, $16 million contract, has been the Marlins' only expenditure on that front thus far. Instead, president of baseball operations Michael Hill and general manager Dan Jennings have made a flurry of trades, six of which affect the major league roster. The biggest, in terms of both player volume and the fulfillment of the implicit commitment to surround Stanton with a playoff-caliber lineup, was the Dec. 11 trade with the Dodgers, which brought in All-Star Dee Gordon, Dan Haren and Miguel Rojas in exchange for top pitching prospect Andrew Heaney, reliever Chris Hatcher, super-utilityman Kiké Hernandez and catcher/utility prospect Austin Barnes.
After three partial seasons of floundering at the major league level, the 26-year-old Gordon shifted from shortstop to second base for 2014, then hit .289/.326/.378 for a 101 OPS+ with a league-high 64 steals and adequate defense en route to 2.4 WAR. His pre- and post-All-Star splits are somewhat dire, but he's a substantial upgrade on the .236/.303/.334 Fish flop from '14 second basemen Derek Dietrich, Donovan Solano and the departed Rafael Furcal, who was limited to just eight games due to recurrent hamstring woes. What's more, the Dodgers are footing the entirety of Gordon's $2.5 million salary, and he still has three years of arbitration eligibility ahead of him.
As for Rojas, he's a light-hitting 25-year-old glove whiz who racked up 14 Defensive Runs Saved in the equivalent of just over 30 games in the field but hit just .181/.242/.221 in 162 PA. He's most likely a bench player unless Adeiny Hechavarria gets hurt. From among the outbound group, only the 29-year-old Hatcher (56 innings of 3.38 ERA work, mostly in lower-leverage situations) contributed substantially to the Marlins in 2014, while the 23-year-old Heaney (who made five starts) likely would have been in the rotation from the outset in '15.
The real question in the Dodgers deal — beyond how much the potential loss of Heaney could sting down the road — is whether or not the 34-year-old Haren will be there, for he had previously threatened to retire if traded out of state. Haren put up a 4.02 ERA and 4.09 FIP in 186 innings in 2014, showing impeccable control (1.7 walks per nine) but typical vulnerability to the long ball (1.3 homers per nine). The Dodgers are paying all $10 million of his salary, and at the moment, he's apparently planning to report to spring training, though he could still take his ball and go home. If he doesn't, he'll join a rotation that will bide its time until Jose Fernandez returns from Tommy John surgery sometime after June 1 with holdovers Henderson Alvarez, Jarred Cosart and Tom Koehler, plus newcomer Mat Latos.
Latos was acquired on Dec. 11 in a trade that sent two prospects, 24-year-old pitcher Anthony DeSclafani (who pitched 33 innings for the big club in 2014 and ranked sixth on Baseball Prospectus' Top 10 Prospects list back in November) and 23-year-old catcher Chad Wallach (who spent 2014 at two levels of A-ball) to Cincinnati. The 27-year-old righty put up a 3.25 ERA (111 ERA+) in 2014 but was limited to 16 starts due to a torn meniscus and elbow inflammation. If healthy, he's a solid No. 2 starter behind Fernandez, though he's in his final year before free agency. He'll make somewhere between $9.4 million and $10.4 million based on the arbitration figures exchanged last week.
The team's other major trade this winter was a five-player deal with the Yankees, one that sent going-on-25-year-old Nathan Eovaldi (who threw a team-high 199 2/3 innings, albeit with a gaudy 4.37 ERA), 33-year-old first base millstone Garrett Jones (.246/.309/.411 in 547 PA) and 22-year-old righty Domingo German (who spent the year in A-ball) to the Bronx in exchange for a pair of swingmen, Martin Prado and David Phelps. The 31-year-old Prado hit .282/.321/.412 with 12 homers and 3.4 WAR split between the Diamondbacks and Yankees, primarily as a third baseman with time at second and both outfield corners as well. He'll man the hot corner this year, during which he'll make a team-high $11 million, and he's under contract at the same price for 2016 as well. The 28-year-old Phelps, who's in his first year of arbitration eligibility, made 17 starts and 15 relief appearances totaling 113 innings for the Yankees in 2014. In 40 career starts, he's been touched for a 4.34 ERA and struck out 7.4 per nine, while in 47 relief appearances, he's pitched to a 3.84 ERA and whiffed 9.8 per nine. Barring a spring injury, he's likely to spend the year in the latter capacity.
In settling in at the hot corner, Prado should represent a substantial upgrade on 2014 NL Comeback Player of the Year Casey McGehee, whose .287/.355/.357 batting line and adequate defense amounted to all of 1.1 WAR. McGehee was traded to the Giants for two pitching prospects, 22-year-old righty Luis Castillo and 23-year-old righty Kendry Flores, who spent 2014 striking out more than a batter per frame at A and High-A, respectively, the latter as a starter. Likewise, the 32-year-old Morse should be a significant upgrade on the -1.1 WAR that Jones "provided." Despite missing virtually all of September due to an oblique strain, Morse hit .279/.336/.475 with 16 homers. His -9 DRS as a leftfielder leached most of the value out of that line — he finished with just 1.0 WAR — but at first base, he's been substantially better, if still in the red (-4 DRS per 1,200 innings, roughly 135 games).
As for the rest of the position player moves, backup catcher Jeff Mathis had his $1.5 million option picked up despite hitting just .200/.263/.274. Utilityman Jordany Valdespin (.214/.280/.347 in 113 PA) was lost on waivers to the Rangers, while outfielder Reed Johnson (.235/.266/.348 in 201 PA) remains a free agent at this writing. The latter may yet be replaced by 41-year-old Ichiro Suzuki, whom the team is pursuing with the promise of a two-year deal and thus a shot at racking up the 156 hits he needs to reach 3,000 in the majors.
Pitching-wise, graybeards Brad Penny and Kevin Gregg are free agents whose brief time with the Marlins further illustrated that they're in the sunsets of their careers. General manager namesake Dan Jennings, who put up a minuscule 1.34 ERA in 40 1/3 innings as the bullpen's low-leverage lefty, was traded to the White Sox for 26-year-old righty Andre Rienzo, who was battered for a 6.82 ERA in 64 2/3 innings split between the rotation and bullpen in 2014 and put up a 4.05 ERA in 46 2/3 innings at Triple-A Charlotte. Rienzo is likely bound for Triple-A again, or at the very least, stuck behind fellow winter acquisitions Preston Claiborne and Aaron Crow on the bullpen depth chart.
The 27-year-old Claiborne went from having a substantial role in the Yankees' bullpen as a rookie in 2013 to throwing just 21 innings for them in 2014 due to a shoulder injury that cost him two months. The 28-year-old Crow, who was the 12th pick of the 2009 draft by the Royals, pitched to a 4.12 ERA but an ugly 5.40 FIP in 59 innings in relief last year, with terrible peripherals across the board (1.5 homers, 3.7 walks and 5.2 strikeouts per nine). Kansas City left him off its postseason roster, then dealt him for 26-year-old infielder-turned reliever Reid Redman and 24-year-old lefty Brian Flynn. Redman whiffed 9.9 per nine in 61 2/3 innings of relief at High A and Double A, while Flynn posted a 4.07 ERA with 6.7 strikeouts per nine in 139 1/3 innings at Triple A.
Unfinished Business: Rebuilding credibility
Roster-wise, the 2015 Marlins are more or less complete, aside from a bit of fine-tuning for the bench (where Ichiro makes a certain amount of sense) and bullpen, as well as no small amount of praying that Fernandez's rehabilitation continues without setback. In an NL East where the Braves and Phillies have committed to rebuilding and the Mets can't find enough nickels between the couch cushions to afford a major league shortstop or upgrade their offense, the Marlins appears to be the division's second-best team behind the Nationals. If everything comes together, they can contend for their first postseason appearance since 2003.
But even if they make good on that, it won't be enough to offset the cynicism with which Loria has run the team since acquiring it in 2002. That will not only take years, but also require them to retain some number of their other exciting young players beyond Stanton, such as Fernandez, Alvarez, and outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, instead of the endless roster churning that keeps payroll — and expectations — low. It can't happen overnight, and it may not happen so long as Loria owns the team, which, given that he's 74, won't be forever. But at the risk of running the best player in franchise history out of town in 2020 (or before, if he demands a trade), it does have to happen.
Preliminary Grade: A-
By locking up Stanton and wheeling and dealing against the backdrop of a weakened division, the Marlins are positioned to contend in 2015. For a team with five straight sub-.500 finishes, that's an impressive accomplishment, but the Marlins still have to deliver on their promise.