The Marlins won't compete this year, but they might in 2018
- Being a Marlins fan right now is bleak, but things are not as bad as they seem. Just focus on the standout performances of Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna.
The Marlins can’t really pitch (they entered Monday ninth among NL teams in runs allowed), and they can’t really score (they entered Monday tenth in runs scored), which means that even in a soft National League, they’re a near-lock to miss the playoffs for the 14th consecutive season.
On paper, very little has gone right for Miami this year. Fine young outfielder Christian Yelich has fallen off offensively. Closer A.J. Ramos turned into a pumpkin before he could be flipped to a contender. His bullpen-mate Brad Ziegler, to whom the team gave a two-year, $12 million deal in the offseason, did too; opposing batters hit .342 against him in 34 games, and he’s on the disabled list now. So are starters Edinson Volquez (signed to a two-year, $22 million deal in the offseason) and Wei-Yin Chen, who signed a five-year, $80 million contract before 2016 and made all of five starts this season before getting hurt. Third baseman Martin Prado, who signed a three-year, $40 million extension at the end of last season, only recently got off the DL. He’s hitting .250. And, after a knee sprain Monday night, he’s back on the DL.
But wait—there’s more! After a surprisingly productive and delightful age-42 season last year, Ichiro Suzuki now looks every bit his 43 years (he's currently slashing a dreadful .225/.271/.297). While Dee Gordon has mustered a slight bounceback from his drug-suspension-interrupted 2016, his .290/.337/.352 line all but confirms the Marlins erred in signing him to a five-year, $50 million deal after his 2015 breakout season. Last month, too, the team was finally forced to cut bait on light-hitting shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, trading him to the Rays for a pair of low-end prospects. And the team is this close to doing the same with not-so-young-anymore lefty starter Adam Conley, who has gotten less effective and more erratic with each season. He starts Tuesday after two-plus months’ banishment in the minors.
Only a fool, I thought, would look at this Marlins season and find cause for celebration. Then I became that fool. Miami fans have a few significant and genuine reasons to smile.
Foremost among them is all-star outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. On Monday night, in the first inning, Stanton blasted a 441-foot homer off the scoreboard in left field. Then, in the fifth, he hit a moonshot that according to Statcast reached 157 feet in the sky. It too cleared the left-field fence. The pair of dingers gave Stanton 28 and sole possession of the National League lead. And they also brought his season OPS to .943, which would constitute nearly a 130-point bump from his 2016 performance.
To the Marlins, who have committed a fortune to Stanton, that bump means everything. The version of Stanton that took the field last year looked diminished, weary, possibly from hit-by-pitch injuries to his face and hand in consecutive seasons. He posted brutal first-half numbers and then missed much of the second half with a groin injury. Maybe pitchers had found his weakness. Maybe he’d ceased to be a middle-of-the-order menace and had become instead a free-swinging, homers-and-strikeouts circus act along the lines of Mark Reynolds. And maybe his 13-year, $325 million contract would shackle the parsimonious Marlins for a generation, damning them to perennial fourth-place finishes.
Instead, Stanton is back, scaring National League pitchers the way he did before. (No, he’s not Aaron Judge, but he is 6' 6" and blessed with a godly amount of power. And while he has but two-and-a-half years on Judge age-wise, he has more than 200 more major-league homers to his name. Just saying.)
And joining him in unexpected 2017 success is his fellow corner outfielder Marcell Ozuna. The 26-year-old Ozuna, hitting .319 with a .943 OPS, is having the best season of his career. After being sent to the minors in 2015, Ozuna rebounded in 2016, although he finished with fairly pedestrian numbers. This season, though, he has been indisputably one of the 20 best position players in the game measured by WAR, which is more than even Stanton can say.
Ozuna gives the Marlins either another corner outfielder to build upon or a valuable trade chip. He’s eligible for arbitration each of the next two years. The team can make the same flip-or-keep call, albeit at a lesser level of the market, with first baseman Justin Bour and catcher J.T. Realmuto. Both have had 2017 breakouts—Realmuto is hitting .306; Bour has 20 homers—and are arbitration-eligible for three more years.
Does any of this help the Marlins in 2017? No, not exactly. These four have hit this well and still Miami is seven games under .500.
Squint, though, and you can see the possibility of a good team as soon as 2018. New, competent deep-pocketed owners could supplant the derelict Jeffrey Loria regime before the offseason begins. And while there’s no pitcher on the free-agent or trade market capable of replacing the genius and dominance of the late Jose Fernandez, Yu Darvish will be a free agent, and so will Shohei Ohtani. Add an ace, get a bounce-back or two from the pitchers currently under contract, and this becomes a contending team, certainly not a hopeless one. And we wouldn’t have learned that without 2017. Not all losing seasons are lost ones.