Between now and Opening Day, we'll be previewing each team with a focus on answering the question: "How will this team be remembered?" For the full archive of each 2017 team preview, click here.
The Marlins are seven years removed from their last winning season, meaning that they haven’t been particularly good for quite a while now. But for the last few years, it hasn’t been so hard to imagine them as good. A lineup anchored by Giancarlo Stanton and a rotation led by Jose Fernandez will do that—all it took was investing some hope in a strong year from a few supporting guys and squinting enough to maybe see a breakout year from a bit player and, bam, there seemed easily enough for a Wild Card spot. That hope was gone by fall each year, sure, but it never seemed too ridiculous in the spring.
This spring, obviously, is different. The death of Fernandez in a boat crash during the last week of the regular season was gutting to the team primarily as a staggering loss in simple human terms, but also as a devastating one in those of baseball, too. Stanton, meanwhile, is coming off yet another injury-plagued year. A monster season is still entirely possible for him and perhaps even likely, but not much more so than is one spent mostly either slumping or on the bench.
There are other bright spots on the roster—most notably Christian Yelich, but also Dee Gordon and Marcell Ozuna—but nothing remotely close to the erstwhile twin lights of Fernandez and Stanton. There’s no support coming from the farm, with a barren system that came in dead last in BP’s organizational rankings. This year’s Marlins won’t be remembered for the fact that they’re not especially good, because that fact in and of itself does nothing to differentiate these Marlins from those of recent years. But they can be remembered for the fact that, for the first time in several years, there isn’t much realistic hope for anything better.
The most glaring issue here is the rotation. With Fernandez, it was a brilliant ace backed by bets that hadn’t yet paid off (Wei-Yin Chen, Andrew Cashner) and homegrown arms that were middling at best (Tom Koehler, Adam Conley). Without Fernandez, that crew looks considerably bleaker. While the winter saw some moves to add to the rotation—signing Edinson Volquez and Jeff Locke, plus trading for Dan Straily—those acquisitions collectively just aren’t enough to be the type of upgrade that the team would need in order to be competitive. There is little, if anything, to be excited for in the way of starting pitching.
On the bright side, the bullpen should be strong enough to paper over some of the sins of the rotation. It was the team’s main area of focus during the winter, with bids for Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen falling short before acquiring Junichi Tazawa and Brad Ziegler. While the combination of the latter two obviously aren’t anything close to what either of the former would have been, they join a trio of sneakily good options from last year in A.J. Ramos, David Phelps, and Kyle Barraclough.
Phelps is perhaps the most interesting, after a breakout season last year saw him post a K/9 of 11.8 and a DRA of 2.77. This will be his first full season as a reliever after a career spent swinging between the rotation and the bullpen, and manager Don Mattingly has indicated that he’s interested in using the 30-year-old in a fireman-esque role. The pen’s only real area for concern is the fact that it doesn’t have a single lefty among the eight guys currently slated to make the Opening Day roster’s relief corps—the lone potential option, Hunter Cervenka, was optioned to Triple-A this week—but the team hasn’t done anything to indicate that they’re interested in changing that. And the bullpen is able to stand out as one of the Marlins’ relative strengths regardless.
The other area in which the team has the potential to shine is the outfield. There’s boundless upside with the trio of Yelich, Ozuna, and Stanton, but that’s deliberately phrased in the language of possibility rather than a guarantee. Yelich is the closest thing to a sure bet here, having steadily improved over each of his four years in the majors so far before exploding last season. His TAv crossed the .300 mark for the first time as he tripled his home run total from the year before to reach a new career-high of 21. It’s only natural that PECOTA pegs him for some regression, but the highs of last season mean that he has space to regress quite a bit and still be the team’s star. Ozuna also had a year of personal bests in 2016, albeit one not nearly as dramatic, but the up-and-down nature of his career to date makes continued progress less assured.
That leaves Stanton, coming off a career-worst season by WARP. (It’s worth noting that his career-worst mark here was still a solid 3.3.) He missed more than three weeks with a strained groin and started slumping far before that. He swung more than he had at any point in the past four seasons, but that only came with a high strikeout rate instead of any increase in hard-hit rate or power—it was just the second time in his career that his slugging percentage dipped below .500. He still showed flashes of the excellence he can offer, particularly with a red-hot April. But the inconsistency that comes with what’s now been established as a regular pattern of injuries and slumps for Stanton make his sustained success something to wish for rather than anything to rely on.
The infield doesn’t offer nearly so high a ceiling, but it stands to be perfectly serviceable if Justin Bour and Martin Prado stay healthy and if Dee Gordon and Adeiny Hechavarria can bounce back to their 2015 selves. But that’s the recurring theme of this team—there’s just so much if—and even a universe in which every if of upside comes true is only a decent one, rather than a great one. Last year’s Marlins team could have been a contender with some imagination, but there’s not enough imagination to make this one work.