Playing Pepper 2016: Miami Marlins

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

Miami Marlins
71-91, third in the NL East
Last year’s Pepper

If there’s a team that’s going to take the brunt of criticism in Major League Baseball, it’s gotta be the Marlins.  Not that they haven’t brought it on themselves, of course, but I feel like that history is going to shade the way folks look at them.  There will be no benefit of the doubt, no looking at a move in a positive light, even if maybe it’s not a regular crazy Marlins move.

Given the history, given the attitude, it’s always an interesting phenomenon to interact with Marlins fans.  We’ve got two very solid ones this year to discuss the moves and outlook of the club.  Michael Jong has been writing about the team a long time, but amazingly as far as I can tell this is his first Playing Pepper appearance.  He’s blogging at Fish Stripes and tweeting @MRJManiac.  Joining him is Sean Millerick from Marlin Maniac, making his debut as well.  His Twitter handle is @miasportsminute.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason?  Did they do what they needed to do?

FS: This offseason was an interesting one for Miami, as the team had enough needs to be considered potentially not competitive, especially given their future assets beyond the team’s core players, but the club went out in an aggressive fashion to acquire talent for a run. The Marlins did at least look into adding onto their area of greatest weakness, making a decent signing for free agent starter Wei-Yin Chen, whose style should flourish in Miami’s large stadium. The question of whether they did enough is a different story, especially with how competitive the very top of the National League is.

MM: They did the minimum they needed to do, but yes. Since 2012, six Marlins starting pitchers have posted 143 IP or more in a season; three of those efforts were from Tom Koehler, and his career ERA is north of 4.00. Securing a bonafide No. 2 behind Fernandez, one with a proven track record of production and health, was the top priority, and they achieved that with the Wei-Yin Chen signing. But for an offense that finished 29th in baseball to be relying solely on healthier seasons and improved performance to boost production at the plate…that is a little troubling. That said, considering the Marlins didn’t have an Opening Day regular that didn’t either spend time on the DL or see themselves struggle enough to be demoted or released, maybe some better luck is all they need.

C70: I understand they are moving the fences in at Marlins Park. Good idea?

FS: Terrible idea. The Marlins are among the most ground ball-heavy offensive teams in baseball, so they may be among the teams least likely to take advantage of the fences coming in. Their starters, on the other hand, have always traditionally leaned towards the ground ball variety, but the club’s most recent $80 milion signing, Chen, happens to be homer-prone and fly ball-heavy. It seems like poor timing for a move that is unlikely to help the team more than its opponents next season.

MM: We discussed this at Marlin Maniac when the news first broke, and I think my initial take from October still holds. It’s a mistake, unless Giancarlo Stanton explicitly asked them to do so. Tom Koehler does give up his fair share of fly balls, as does Wei-Yin Chen. But if Stanton connects, the ball would leave the Polo Grounds, let alone Marlins Park. Moving the fences in is by no means a lock to fix the offense. It was just cheaper than signing Chris Davis.

C70: Assuming he’s healthy all year long, what are your expectations for Jose Fernandez?

FS: If Jose Fernandez stays healthy, he should be among the best pitchers in the 2016 season. Fernandez has been nothing if not spectacular while on the field, and while health may come with subsequent changes to pitching style, he did not appear to miss a beat coming off of Tommy John surgery last season. The more important question is whether he can truly stay healthy after missing a year and change on various right arm problems.

MM: Sky’s the limit. If he can make 25-30 starts, he’ll compete for the Cy Young, and will lead the league in strikeouts; he was well ahead of the pack prior to his injury in 2014, and nothing I saw last year gives me reason to think that would change. Could go on forever about a full season from Fernandez would look like, but suffice it to say I’m not convinced the list of “better than Jose” pitchers includes anyone besides Clayton Kershaw.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

FS: I expect Marcell Ozuna to make strides back to his play from 2014, when he was a sleeper contributor on the best outfield in baseball. Christian Yelich has some potential to break out as well, if he can only add more drive and lift on the swings he can put on the ball. Miami’s two youngest outfielders figure to be key contributors if the team is to contend next year.

MM: My money is on Christian Yelich. Despite having already won a Gold Glove and notching a .300 season, something Yelich has struggled to do is answer the bell from start to finish; he’s a notorious slow starter. I think that changes this year, and he’s a consistent force in the lineup. Everyone else I think essentially is what they’re going to be. Dee Gordon will put up All-Star numbers, but likely never outperform his 2015 campaign. Justin Bour looks to be this generation’s Adam Dunn. The only stride Stanton needs to make is in the luck department; if it weren’t for two freak pitches, we’d be talking about whether or not he’d be able to become the first player to win three consecutive MVP awards since his hitting coach did it in 2003. But of all Miami’s regulars, Yelich more than anyone else has the look of a player who still has at least one gear left to show us.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

FS: I project the Marlins will likely finish with 83 wins on the year. If the Fish get solid contributions from the outfield and average work
from at least half of the infield, the club can find themselves close, but not quite in the thick of the elite contenders for the NL crown.

MM: 80-82. We’re assuming health in question three, and that’s not an assumption I’m making; same with Stanton. Until I see those full seasons, I’m cautious. I also feel that the team needed two pitchers, not just one, and that the odds of both Yelich and Marcell Ozuna having breakthrough years is slim. But one will, and the rest will work out enough to show improvement, setting them up to legitimately contend in 2017. Now if all of the above does work out, along with some big strides buy one of the youngsters in the back of the rotation, the NL should look out.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

FS: This question has differed over the years. In the dark days of the Braves’ divisional dominance, it was clearly the Braves, who doubled as the team’s closest geographical in-division rival. The Mets have always had held a sore spot because of Miami’s significant New York
transplant population. The Phillies were also an obnoxious team to deal with in their best days. As of right now, it is probably the
Mets, with their combination of recent success and local factors. Miami should be competitive, but ultimately fare worse than the Mets
heading into next year; New York appears primed to potentially repeat their NL East division crown.

MM: Oh, the Phillies without question. Have always had this inexplicable hatred of them. Well, I suppose it’s a bit explicable. My all-time favorite Marlins were Mike Lowell and Dan Uggla, and that duo lost a lot of respective Gold Gloves and other accolades to Scott Rolen and Chase Utley. So hated them. Found the existence of Bobby Abreu offensive, and was simply sickened by Pat Burrell. Seeing as how they are in full tank and rebuild mode, I expect to fair pretty well against them. 12-7?

My thanks to Michael and Sean for their thoughts on the Fish.  If nothing else, there’s likely to be some newsworthy happenings down Florida way this season!

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