Port St Lucie, FL, USA; Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton at the plate against the New York Mets at Digital Domain Park. Credit: Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE
The Miami Marlins are rebooting the whole organization, and they've spent scores of millions to improve the team. Do they stand a chance in the NL East?
If the Miami Marlins had followed the template of a normal expansion team, it probably would have made sense to rewrite a 2001: A Space Odyssey screenplay that used the home-run display instead of the obelisk. Change "apes beating on each other with the world's first makeshift tool" to "signed Al Leiter" and have the home-run display shriek for a while. Change "journey to a mysterious moon excavation" to "draft and develop Josh Beckett" and have the home-run display shriek for a while.
It all would have led to the glorious evolution into the Miami Marlins, where there was a creepy fish-baby floating around in the stars, symbolizing what the franchise has become. It's a grown-up franchise now, with a baseball-only stadium and spending money to win. Then they could finally win that division title they've been missing all these years.
Except they didn't follow the template of a normal expansion team. They spent money, and then they won it all. They blew it up. Then they accidentally won it all with a young team. Then they blew it up again. Now they're trying the first way again. And they're still looking for their first division title. So the 2001 analogy doesn't work. We're just left with the shrieking obelisk. There are flamingos on it.
Something that's overlooked about the New Marlins spending money again for the first time: They should have been good last year. At one point they were, starting the season 29-19, but some amazingly neat and confined slumps (5-23 in June, 7-20 in August) sent them to 90 losses. It was a team that should have been too talented to have that happen, though. They had hitters. They had pitchers. But it all went wrong all at once in two separate months.
They still have hitters. They still have pitchers. Now they have more of the good ones. There were whispers that the Marlins were going to be free-agent players in the off-season, and they were seemingly in every rumor. Albert Pujols. C.J. Wilson. Yoenis Cespedes. Peyton Manning. It was as if the Marlins were a new company advertising on MLB Trade Rumors, and they actually landed two of the bigger free agents in Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle. Look at the effect that Reyes has on the lineup:
It's like … it's like … last year's lineup but with Jose Reyes stapled to the top. Which it sort of is. And last year's team wasn't exactly the Big Red Machine, scoring 625 runs. After accounting for park, it was a slightly below-average offense. But when you play the better/same/worse game, the Marlins do very well:
Expect to hit better:
Jose Reyes (in place of Greg Dobbs)
Expect to hit the same
Expect to hit worse
Your categorizations may vary, and with it so might your optimism about the Miami offense. But Reyes is clearly a big upgrade on Dobbs, even if he plays only 120 games. Ramirez is a great bet to improve, as he's still just 28, and last year was the first season in his six-year career that was anything but superlative. Morrison always had exemplary plate discipline in the minors, but in 2011 he brought along some of the missing home-run power. It took a midseason gutter-slump to bring him down to Earth, but his September numbers -- .264/.376/.528 -- are something a Marlins fan could reasonably expect.
That brings us to Giancarlo Stanton. lights dim. music swells. candles flicker. Giancarlo Stanton is an absolutely fascinating player. The list of players with more than 50 homers before they turned 22.
Let's see, that's nine inner-circle Hall of Famers, two Hall of Very Gooders, and one of the most unfortunate strokes of bad luck in baseball history. The odds are good that Stanton will get even better than he already is. Plus there's the name change. Giancarlo Stanton. It's like he received the matrix and became Rodimus Prime in front of our eyes. There's no way that he doesn't get better.
Unless his knees are made of tofu. But let's not think about that. Let's assume that he's somewhere between Frank Robinson and Orlando Cepeda. If you pick the Marlins to grab a playoff spot, he's the biggest reason.
The effect of Reyes on the lineup is substantial, and the same goes for Buehrle and the rotation. Buehrle isn't an ace. But he's a ridiculous innings-eating machine with an ERA better than the league average in ten of his 11 seasons. There haven't been that many pitchers who have been as consistently healthy as Buehrle, and the odds are that Marlins Park will be a heckuva pitchers' park. Buehrle was a good pickup.
When healthy, Josh Johnson is one of the best pitchers in baseball. It's too early to know if he's more Josh Beckett than Rich Harden, and just getting the injuries out of the way early. But he should be healthy. Healthier than last year, at least, when most of his starts were taken up by Clay Hensley and Brad Hand.
Ricky Nolasco was cuckolded by FIP -- long story -- and now he's determined to make it look as stupid as possible. That's the third year in a row that his ERA was dramatically over his FIP and xFIP. At this point, no one should pretend to know which one is the real Nolasco. He has a substantial upside, though. Aaaaany day now.
And the fifth starter is Carlos Zambrano, who is reportedly throwing much harder this spring than he was last year. He's only 30, which is hard to believe, and he's coming off his first below-average season in ten years. There are worse candidates for a rebound.
The hitting should be better. The pitching should be better. The Marlins should be better. With the Phillies looking at a Pete Orr/Jimmy Rollins/Oh God/Wait No infield to start the season, and the Braves standing still, it's not the worst time to be a contender in the NL East. With a little help and a little luck, the Marlins have a great chance to nab one of the three playoff spots they'll be eligible for.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Hole they didn't fill)
Emilio Bonifacio had a fine 2011. It was unexpected, though, and his previous numbers didn't suggest such a breakout. The Marlins decided that Yoenis Cespedes wasn't worth the money/hype/PR boon, and they didn't chase after potential trade candidates like Peter Bourjos or Marlon Byrd. They're fine with Bonifacio. If that decision allowed them to free up the cash for Buehrle or Reyes, it was probably a good move. The lineup would sure look better with a more reliable performer in center, though. Of course, Aaron Rowand is in camp, trying to make the team. So what am I talking about, right?
Anibal Sanchez's ERA went up over his comeback season of 2010, but his strikeout rate jumped substantially. If he's the same pitcher as last year, he'll be an asset. But those peripherals hint at a pitcher who's ready to break out.
The Marlins aren't just fighting for a spare wild-card spot in September; they're within three games of the division lead. They'll also trade for a center fielder at some point, either because Bonifacio regresses, or there's an injury in the infield that forces Infante to shift around, moving Bonifacio back to second. The home-run display will make a large swath of Florida sterile. Thirty-seven-thousand people at a time.