If you’re shocked by the idea of actually having something positive to say about the laughingstock Miami Marlins, you’d be far from alone. They have arguably the most despised owner in sports in Jeffrey Loria, a man who successfully talked Florida taxpayers into publicly funding a gaudy stadium that no one goes to. They underwent yet another fire sale last winter, less than a year after opening the new park. They just bid farewell to Loria’s hand-picked hitting coach Tino Martinez after allegations of verbal and physical abuse, all while the offense Martinez led challenges historical marks for futility.
Stripped of most of their veterans after the blockbuster trade with Toronto last winter that earned them near-universal grief, the Marlins lost 41 of their first 54 games, the worst season-opening stretch for any team since 1987. You probably haven’t given them much of a thought at all since then, and it’s understandable why that might be the case.
But that means that just about no one seems to have noticed that the Marlins have the fourth-best record in the National League (29-24) since May 31, two bona fide superstars under the age of 24 and a roster that is turning over the placeholders to include young and talented prospects.
When the team moved into its brand-new park last season, they did so with an excess of pomp and circumstance by signing Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes to expensive free-agent deals. But as the team stumbled on the field, the selloff soon began, and after pitcher Ricky Nolasco was sent to the Dodgers last month, it left the team without a single player making more than $2.75 million in 2013.
With the roster gutted of talent other than elite slugger Giancarlo Stanton, new managerMike Redmond was forced to staff his lineup with past-their-prime veteran fill-ins like Greg Dobbs (.262 wOBA) and Juan Pierre (.261 wOBA). It didn’t help that Stanton was sidelined for much of the first half by a bad hamstring, and the team’s start was so atrocious that it fulfilled every critic’s claim that Loria cared only about revenue sharing and tax breaks, not spending on a winning roster.
But what was often lost in that accounting is this simple fact: the 2012 team was awful. It lost 93 games, cost around $93 million dollars and was a year older. While it was difficult to avoid piling on for the horrible optics of blowing the team up so quickly after moving into the new park, if there was a mistake made here, it wasn’t the Toronto trade. It was the players they had spent money on in the first place.
While Hanley Ramirez has become a star again after being traded to the Dodgers in the first fire-sale deal last summer, most of the players sent to Toronto have failed to contribute any more than they did in Miami, leaving the Blue Jays mired in last place themselves.
Meanwhile, the Marlins have reloaded by working with the talent imported in those deals to fill in around their two young superstars, Stanton and rookie pitcher Jose Fernandez. Stanton’s ongoing injury problems remain a concern, yet he remains one of the most fearsome sluggers in the game. Fernandez, the team’s first-round pick in 2011, just turned 21 on Wednesday, yet is one of the very few starters in baseball with a FIP below 3.00.
As the roster turns over, the team Redmond rolls out today looks very different than the one he had earlier. For example, in two different April games, he was forced to start Pierre,Justin Ruggiano (.285 wOBA) and Austin Kearns (.232 wOBA in 31 plate appearances) as his outfielders, a trio that is a combined 99 years old and well past their primes.
By May, 22-year-old Marcell Ozuna was seeing considerable time in the outfield, and for each of the last nine games, the starters have been Christian Yelich (21, Keith Law’s No. 6 overall preseason prospect), Jake Marisnick (22, Law’s No. 82 prospect, acquired from Toronto) and a now-healthy Stanton, still only 23.
The youth movement can be found nearly everywhere. When the Marlins hosted the Mets on Tuesday, seven of the nine starters were 25 or younger, including promising 23-year-old starter Nate Eovaldi, acquired in the Ramirez deal, and slick-fielding 24-year-old shortstopAdeiny Hechavarria, who came from the Blue Jays. That number could have been eight if 23-year-old catcher Rob Brantly (acquired from Detroit for Anibal Sanchez) hadn’t had the night off. Eovaldi was actually the oldest pitcher they’d had in three nights, since he was following Fernandez and 22-year-old Jacob Turner, who came with Brantly from Detroit and has a 3.31 FIP in 11 starts.
While the offense struggles to come together, other than Stanton and Logan Morrison — who is still only 25 — the pitching has been excellent. No team had a lower FIP in July than the 2.94 the Marlins did, as the bullpen has been effective and Fernandez, Eovaldi and Turner front a rotation that includes 23-year-old Henderson Alvarez, who also came from Toronto.
There’s more help on the way, as 21-year-old lefty Justin Nicolino (yet another piece from Toronto, and No. 62 on Law’s list) was recently promoted to Double-A, where he joins 2012 first-round pick Andrew Heaney in the rotation.
This new young group of Marlins will be further reinforced by what looks likely to be a top-two pick in next year’s draft, but the question here will always be about whether ownership will spend to build a competitive team or just continue to cycle off trades for minimum-salary players. At some point soon, they’ll need to decide on the future of Stanton, though trading him could bring back an enormous bounty that could potentially fill several holes.
We may be naive by expecting a Loria team to ever be successful, but for now, the baseball operations people have things pointed in the right direction in Miami — even if few care to notice.
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