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October 1, 2009

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Florida Marlins

by Baseball Prospectus

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Baseball Prospectus' Pre-season Projection: 71-91, fourth place
Current record: 85-74, third place

The six-year theory (1997, 2003) should have gotten them another championship in 2009. It didn't. Patterns: apparently unreliable in baseball.

Buster Olney of ESPN.com's Take

What went wrong: The Marlins, like a lot of small-budget teams, try to get by with a bunch of young and unproven arms in their bullpen, and this year, that calculated gamble might have cost Florida playoff spot. Matt Lindstrom and then Leo Nuņez got the opportunity to finish games for the Marlins-and they struggled. Florida racked up 22 blown saves, tied for seventh most in the majors. Florida also struggled defensively (again), ranking in the bottom third in the majors in errors, and the Marlins had much more trouble than expected maintaining quality depth in their rotation.

Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: There are going to be a glut of closers on the move this winter, from free agents like Jose Valverde to possible trade bait like Kerry Wood, and the Marlins need to figure out a way to get an established reliever to finish games. But they also have looming contractual situations with two of their best players, Josh Johnson and Dan Uggla. Johnson's agent is already banging the drum about wanting a big-money deal-and this is the kind of dialogue that has led to the likes of Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Carl Pavano, etc. heading out of South Florida. Rival executives believe this is the right time for the Marlins to decide whether they're going to sign Johnson to a multi-year deal or trade him. With Chris Coghlan now established in the majors, it may be that the Marlins will move him back to second and look to deal Uggla, who has averaged 30 homers a year over the last three seasons.

The Baseball Prospectus Take

For the second year in a row, the Marlins have a record well above what would be expected given their runs scored and allowed, which are near even-that's usually a recipe for a .500 record. The Marlins entered the season without quality players at first base or third and an unproven center fielder (Cameron Maybin). The pitching staff would hope for another good season from Ricky Nolasco, a healthy season from Josh Johnson, the blossoming of young starters Chris Volstad, Andrew Miller, and Anibal Sanchez, and the successful elevation of Matt Lindstrom to the closer's role.

They opened up with a stunning 11-1 record, but this was a distortion caused by a trick of scheduling; six of those games were against the Nationals at their worst, three were against a Mets team that would be one of the biggest disappointments in the league, and three were against a Braves team which had yet to restructure itself into a contender. Outside of that hot start in their first dozen games, the Marlins have gone 74-73. Voila, a .500 team. Though Hanley Ramirez had another MVP-worthy season, Maybin and Nolasco both flopped early and had to be demoted for stretches, Bonifacio was a predictable disaster, several other young pitchers imploded and Lindstrom failed. Despite these setbacks, one thing kept the Marlins from collapsing was their 29-19 record (.604) in one-run games, the best in baseball. That's not the kind of good luck that holds up from year to year.-Steven Goldman, Baseball Prospectus

Key stat: .299

Emilio Bonifacio's on-base percentage in the leadoff spot didn't quite reach .300, and it's not like he compensated by hitting for any power, slugging all of .312. Nonetheless, he was allowed to eat up plate appearances at the top of the order until the end of May, when late-developing Rookie of the Year candidate Coghlan arrived. Manager Fredi Gonzalzez dropped Bonifacio-all the way to second, where he remained (still making outs) until Nick Johnson was acquired. Among players with over 400 plate appearances, Bonifacio has provided less offense per game than any player except Cincinnati's Willy Taveras and Texas's Chris Davis. Whatever Florida's financial constraints, giving Bonifacio such a prominent of a role was a crippling self-inflicted wound that cast a sub-replacement-level player in a key spot, hobbling an offense that needed to be at its best to overcome the shaky pitching staff.-Steven Goldman, Baseball Prospectus

ESPN.com Rumor Central

Trades: The Marlins aren't breaking up the core. That said, the Fish will likely try to trade Jeremy Hermida-don't expect a bounty for the former prospect cover boy-and also move Uggla, who will be a due a hefty arbitration raise to up to around $8 million. Don't be surprised if the Giants have interest.

Money: Josh Johnson is in a weird situation. He can go to arbitration and get a hefty raise, or he can get some security by agreeing to a three- or four-year deal that would see him make north of $10 million per season. But, as Jayson Stark writes, "The Marlins have an organizational policy of not offering contracts longer than three years to any pitcher. They're mulling whether to make an exception for Johnson, but they're not there yet. I think it would take four years to get this done-a deal that would buy out his final two years of arbitration and then pay him market or near-market value, for giving up his first two years of free agency. The question is how they would value those two free-agent years. His agent has talked about getting 'CC Sabathia money.' And I can't envision the Marlins paying any pitcher $23 million a year. So it might not be a question of him 'turning down' four years at $50 million. They might not ever get that far."

Who 2 Watch 4: Cameron Maybin, CF

Has Maybin finally figured something out? A perennial top prospect, Maybin's big-league trials have been consistently hampered by swing-and-miss tendencies, but he made some adjustments at Triple-A New Orleans after an early demotion, shortening his swing and focusing on contact more than power, and batting .319/.399/.463 in the process. He's looked far more comfortable at the plate during his September return to the big leagues, and 2010 could be the year where the Marlins finally get what they asked for.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

Draft Recap
Signed: 36 of 50
Spent: Just over $4 million.
Hit: Chad James, LHP (18th overall): James is a sturdy southpaw who ranked 20th on Keith Law's Top 100, and will bring three potential big-league pitches into his first pro appearance.
Miss: Marquise Cooper, OF (97th overall): Cooper is a toolsy, athletic talent with raw baseball skills, but he was not on the first-day radar of most clubs. One California-based scout loved him as a later-round idea; Florida gave him $345,000.-Jason A. Churchill, ESPN.com

The Bottom Line

The Marlins rank last in the National League in attendance, and their approximately $37 million payroll doesn't figure to get much higher while they're waiting for their new retractable-roof stadium to open in 2012. This represents an immediate problem, because a good portion of the team is in line for raises this offseason. The resulting moves could mean a disastrous return for Bonifacio to a regular role, and maybe even more playing time for veteran journeymen like Wes Helms, while sort-of-ready prospects like first baseman Logan Morrison and outfielder Mike Stanton could be rushed to the bigs in the same way that tyro lefty Sean West was skipped past Triple-A this year. Until we know to what extent all the arbitration cases will force them to further clean house, we won't be certain of their outlook, but a leap forward into real contention seems unlikely, while a step backward looms as a real possibility.-Steven Goldman, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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