Expect Stanton to carry Marlins to first winning season since 2009
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 10: the Miami Marlins.
2014 Record and Finish: 77–85 (.475), fourth place in NL East (tied for 18th overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 85–77 (.525), second place in NL East (10th overall)
The Case For
The Marlins won 77 games in 2014, their highest total in four years. Given the amount of young talent on the team and the improvements they made this offseason, it’s not at all unreasonable to believe Miami could post its first winning record since '09 this year, and at that point, the Marlins would be on the fringe of the wild-card race.
Miami could even be legitimate contenders this year if a few extra things go right, such as a big second-half performance from ace Jose Fernandez, who is due to return from Tommy John rehab in June, or an in-house upgrade at catcher via either a rebound from incumbent Jarrod Saltalamacchia or the emergence of top prospect J.T. Realmuto, who will open the season in Triple A.
There’s a lot to like about this team. That obviously starts with slugger Giancarlo Stanton, whom Miami is hoping will have another MVP-quality showing, but the outfield as a whole is impressive. Marcell Ozuna claimed the centerfield job last year and posted a 111 OPS+ at the age of 23. Leftfielder Christian Yelich was the least valuable of the Marlins’ three regular outfielders in 2014, but he still compiled an impressive 3.6 WAR at the age of 22. To that trio, two of whom are now locked up long-term, Miami has added Michael Morse’s big bat, finally giving the late-blooming slugger a chance to play first base full-time after being miscast as an outfielder for much of the last five seasons. If he can stay healthy, something with which the less-demanding position should help, Morse will be a clear upgrade at one infield corner.
Fellow veteran addition Martin Prado should also be an upgrade at the other corner. With 3.4 combined WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com, Prado was nearly twice as valuable as departed third baseman Casey McGehee last year. Elsewhere in the infield, newly acquired Dee Gordon(.289 average, MLB-high 64 stolen bases) is a decent bet to improve on the .236/.303/.334 line compiled by Miami’s second basemen last year.
The additions made to the rotation, Mat Latos and Dan Haren, come with a few more red flags, but there is upside there, particularly compared to what the Marlins got in 2014 from Nathan Eovaldi (87 ERA+) and Jacob Turner (6.03 ERA in 12 starts), as well as spot starters Brad Penny, Randy Wolf, Kevin Slowey and even prospects Andrew Heaney and Anthony DeSclafani. Those last five combined for a 6.54 ERA in 20 starts for Miami last season.
The Case Against
It's easy to cast aspersions on the rotation. None of Miami's five projected starters struck out more than 7.4 per nine innings, which was the NL average. Latos saw his strikeout rate drop by 1.5 last year amid an injury-shortened season in which his fastball slowed by two miles per hour. Haren, despite his stinginess with walks and consistently strong strikeout-to-walk ratios, has posted an 85 ERA+ over the last three seasons thanks to allowing 1.4 home runs per nine innings over the last three years.
Tom Koehler is nothing special, and the other two incumbents, groundballers Henderson Alvarez and Jarred Cosart, have posted distressingly low strikeout rates in their young careers (4.8 and 5.5 K/9, respectively). Fernandez, the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year, is due back at mid-season, but the Marlins would be wise to be exceedingly careful with their franchise arm, and there’s no telling how long it will take the 22-year-old to return to his former dominance, if he ever does.
Meanwhile, there’s no guarantee that Miami will get anything better than below-average production at shortstop, catcher and possibly even second base, undermining the rest of the offense. If the fragile Morse gets hurt on top of that, the Marlins will only have half a lineup to prop up their weak pitching staff.
X-Factor: Mat Latos
Latos, acquired from the Reds this winter to be Miami's ace while Fernandez recuperates from Tommy John surgery, is just 27 and has a strong track record. He's averaged exactly 200 innings a year from 2010 to '13 and posted a 115 ERA+, 3.33 FIP, 1.16 WHIP and 3.15 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the last five seasons. However, after missing the first 2 1/2 months of 2014 due to a flexor mass strain in his pitching elbow and February surgery to repair the meniscus in his left knee, Latos saw both his strikeout rate and velocity drop dramatically. In his four full, healthy major league seasons, Latos struck out 8.4 men per nine innings and averaged close to 94 mph on his four-seam fastball. In his 16 starts last year, however, Latos struck out just 6.5 men per nine and averaged shy of 92 mph on his fourseamer.
Latos's health woes continued through the off-season: In November, he had a stem cell treatment in his elbow in an attempt to regrow missing tissue and cartilage, and this spring, he has been slightly behind the Marlins' other pitchers. In addition, Latos made a significant repertoire change last year, reducing the use of his slider and all but eliminating his changeup in favor of a splitter. Despite all of that, his 2014 results were solid (111 ERA+, 1.15 WHIP, 3.65 FIP), thanks in part to the lowest walk rate (2.3 BB/9) and best efficiency (3.65 pitches per plate appearance) of his career.
With regression expected from Alvarez and Cosart (2014 FIPs of 3.58 and 3.77, respectively), Miami needs Latos to deliver consistent quality starts across 200-plus innings this season to have any hope of contention. Outside of Fernandez, there is no player on the roster who is a bigger question mark heading into the season.
Number To Know: 15.0 bWAR
That was the combined 2014 value of the Marlins’ three starting outfielders—Stanton, Ozuna and Yelich—making them the most valuable such group in baseball. That trio edged out the Mike Trout-led Angels, the Andrew McCutchen-led Pirates and the Alex Gordon-led Royals for that distinction, and its oldest member is Stanton, who turned 25 in November. That outfield plus Fernandez gives Miami an impressive core to build around, which it attempted to do this winter, but it may be another couple of seasons before there are enough complimentary pieces for the team to contend. If that’s the case, trading away lefty Andrew Heaney, a 2012 first-round pick, this past off-season could loom large in the coming years.
Most Overrated: Dee Gordon, 2B
“Last year was almost like two years for Gordon. He had a great first half and then it fell apart in the second half. He’s got to make some adjustments, but if he does that, if he can do even half of what he did in the first half last year, any club would live with that.”
Most Underrated: A.J. Ramos, RP
“He provides good innings and quality innings. Nobody really hits him. He has a plus changeup, good breaking ball, above-average fastball. He does walk some guys, but he’s always in attack mode.”