Playing Pepper 2020: Miami Marlins

If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper!  For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear.  It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about.  It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.

Miami Marlins
57-105, fifth in NL East
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper (Part 2)

Perhaps it’s because other organizations are taking the spotlight, but it seems like there’s been less criticism aimed at the Marlins recently.  Of course, sending an entire outfield of All-Star players out in one offseason will get a lot of attention, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the intensity has leveled.  That said, even with the terrible record, it seems like the Marlins might be committing to building something down there in Florida.  Whether they’ll stick with it still remains to be seen.  That’s in the future, though.  Right now, we’ve got some people with their fingers on the pulse of Marlins baseball to talk about the coming season.

Blogger Site Twitter
Craig Mish Fantasy Sports Network CraigMish
Andre Fernandez The Athletic FernandezAndreC
Sean Millerick Call to the Pen miasportsminute

C70: 2019 saw the Marlins put up the worst record in the National League, which wasn’t all that surprising, but what were some of the good things that happened for Miami last year?

Craig: The young starting pitchers each had their moments where they showed they belonged. Caleb Smith dominated in April and May. Pablo Lopez was steady. Sandy Alcantara became more aggressive as the season went on. Their starters were by no means perfect, but they showed they belong in the league. Smith & Lopez had health issues which hampered their overall results. Alcantara looked like he can front a MLB Rotation.

Andre: Mainly just making progress toward their main goal of building the team into a contender. The draft was a key point of that process as the Marlins had one of the better three days of selections among all major league teams highlighted by Vanderbilt star outfielder JJ Bleday. The 57-105 record also put them in position to have another potential strong draft this summer as they will pick third in the first round. The trades to acquire prospects Jazz Chisholm and Jesus Sanchez at the deadline have given them a top 5 farm system after years of being one of baseball’s worst.

On the field, they also seem to have found their catcher for the foreseeable future in Jorge Alfaro and their pitching staff strengthened with Sandy Alcantara’s emergence.

Sean: Hard to pretend 2019 wasn’t a rough year. As far as bright spots go though, there were causes for optimism. Brian Anderson was able to build upon his promising 2018 campaign, and really looks like he can be counted on for plus defense and 25-30 HRs. Most exciting though were the developments on the pitching side. Both Sandy Alcantara and Caleb Smith showed they belong in a big league rotation, with Smith putting up some dazzling strikeout numbers and Alcantara earning an All-Star nod. Throughout the minors, evidence piled up throughout the season that Miami really has built up some formidable pitching depth. I still think this year’s projected starting rotation might end up being more a collection of No. 3s than one featuring a true ace, though Alcantara did finish very strong over the final two months. Lastly, the Marlins landed a pair of MLB Top 100 prospects in midseason trades, allowing them to boast as much Top 100 talent as any organization save Tampa. The future looks bright, even if the short-term future looks like another fifth place finish in baseball’s toughest division.  

C70: What addition from this past offseason do you think will make the biggest impact?

Craig: Trading for Jonathan Villar was one of the steals of the offseason. A high impact player at the plate and on the bases, Villar can bring excitement to a team desperately in need of a spark. Miami had been near or at the bottom on the basepaths in steals and base running metrics. He will instantly change that. Very little risk on a one year deal where Miami can consider moving him at the deadline if they choose. 

Andre: Jonathan Villar. He’s the most versatile pickup of all on a team that is building its foundation around having as many of those types of players as possible. The plan seems to be for Villar to see action mainly in center field, but expect him to move around a lot in both the outfield and infield, which will allow the Marlins to be flexible with their 26-man roster especially once injuries occur. Villar’s speed should kickstart a baserunning game that’s been silent for the past two seasons and being a switch-hitter he may stabilize the leadoff spot in the lineup although manager Don Mattingly said he could also hit at the bottom of the order as well.

Sean: There will be a lot of new faces to choose from, that’s for sure. At least three of Miami’s projected Opening Day starters weren’t even there a year ago. A full season of Corey Dickerson, a return to 2018 form by Jesus Aguilar, or a repeat of 2019 by Jonathan Villar would all likely be the right answer here. However, I’m going to go with the collective overhaul of one of baseball’s worst bullpens. Brandon Kintzler admittedly has me the most excited, but the presence of any pitcher not named Wei-Yin Chen could be just as important. Six run leads through six innings seldom felt safe in 2019, and as frustrating as that was as an armchair observer, I can’t imagine the toll that must have taken on a young clubhouse. Especially the starting rotation. Preserving a few more victories, and at least keeping more contests close, should pay huge dividends going forward. Not to mention making 2020 much more watchable than 2019.

C70: How comfortable is Don Mattingly’s seat? Is there any indication the Marlins might want to make a change at manager?

Craig: Mattingly got a vote of confidence from CEO Derek Jeter and President Mike Hill with a two-year extension. It’s unclear what those financials look like but it has been speculated he took a pay cut. A true pro and a class individual there is no question he is a tremendous individual. As a manager? He’s been fine. I’m not sure you can say the club has met or played above expectations the last two seasons, albeit some of the issues were not entirely his fault. If Miami doesn’t show massive improvement this season, I’d guess they make a change. I thought they would this past offseason but they chose the route of stability. If will be interesting to monitor their new Bench Coach James Rowson who came over from the Minnesota Twins. He has an integral role with the offense and could be the next skipper when Mattingly’s contract expires in two years, or sooner. 

Andre: I’d say pretty comfortable for the moment after they gave him that 2-year extension. Mattingly’s steady presence is good for this team as it begins to call up its top prospects this season. The Marlins do expect to have better results this season so while I think it would take a lot to warrant a managerial change, I’d say Mattingly rides out at least the duration of this season into his contract year.

Sean: Don Mattingly’s seat is cool and comfortable….unless the Marlins win over 70 games. Mattingly is a capable, well-liked and respected manager. However, he has never had a winning season while here, and that did include two years with multiple All-Stars and MVPs on the roster. My sense is that ownership has, correctly, noted that manager turnover has historically been a point of contention and criticism for this franchise. The 2019 Marlins weren’t going anywhere even with Tony LaRussa and a good sign stealing system, and the 2020 Marlins aren’t either. So changing managers really hasn’t made any sense, especially given how stripped down the roster was. Now, Year 3 of the rebuild does seem to be bringing some expectations, yet contention is hardly among them. Mattingly certainly has one more free pass for sub .500 baseball. BUT- if the Marlins develop faster than expected, and say make a 15-game jump like the 2014 squad did, I could see Mattingly getting swapped out for a splash manager signing if such a name is available.

C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?

Craig: I believe the Marlins will have a better club in 2020, but realistically the issue is the division they play in. You can make the case this is the most competitive division in baseball. The Nationals are off a World Series title. The Braves are the same or better. Philadelphia will be better. The Mets should be above .500 as well. I’ll make an official prediction before the season starts but I see the club as 10-15 wins better than last year. The additions of Villar & Corey Dickerson are significant ones. In order to achieve this however their bullpen must be better and the organization needs to be better prepared in August & September should they make trades. The club fell apart once Sergio Romo, Nick Anderson & Trevor Richards were dealt. Brian Anderson’s injury was a late season crusher. They should have more depth. I’d say between 67-70 wins is realistic. 

Andre: I still think they finish last because it’s such a deep and more experienced division. But if the new vets make an impact and some of the prospects hit the ground running, they’re capable of more victories. I’d say somewhere in the low 70s as far as win total. They should be more competitive.

Sean: Well last, by a country mile, in terms of the standings. You can make a reasonable playoff case for every other team in the NL East, and not even sound crazy arguing that the defending champs aren’t even the class of the division. I do think the Marlins will improve, and inarguably be a better baseball team in 2020 than they were in 2019. There will be less blowouts, more competitive games. But as to how much that shows in the win column, baseball’s toughest division could make anything more than a five game improvement quite difficult. I’m optimistic about the pitchers though, and I’ll say 69 wins is what Miami ends up with. 

C70: What’s the main topic Marlins fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?

Craig: Marlins fans seem to be extremely caught up in the number of prospects on these top 100 lists. It’s always a cautionary tale. The idea that every single one of them will work out is a fallacy. Miami is in year 3 of what looks like a 5 year plan. We have got to see some of those kids in the big leagues at some point in 2020. Trust is being built, and payroll money has been spent but tickets must be sold for this to all work out. No one is buying tickets to a Marlins game if the club is 20 games under in May no matter how many prospects they have. The big league team must be better. The turnaround must begin this season.

Andre: I think Marlins fans are hopeful that their window of contention is only a year or two away. But that will largely depend on how this crop of prospects develops over that span and what moves the organization makes to build depth around those pieces. As we’ve seen with other successful rebuilds, the more depth the better and while the Marlins have bolstered their farm system, they must keep adding since there are a lot of high-risk, high-reward prospects among this group.

Sean: Tricky question, but I’d have to say the prospects. That Top 5 farm system ranking catches the eye, and it’s hard to argue that the new owners didn’t come through on the first thing they promised to do: build from the ground up. The next question is how many of those prospects show they can move from potential to proven at the MLB level. Most Marlins fans seem to expect this to work, at least from a player development standpoint. Those answers start coming in 2020, and there is guarded optimism the answer will be a positive one. 

C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?

Craig: I’m looking forward to seeing this revamped offense take the field. Villar, Dickerson and Brian Anderson pose a much more significant threat than the talent they had last year. I’m unsure on Jesus Aguilar, but Garrett Cooper showed me he can really hit. I am a believer in him. It will also be fascinating to watch the development of Sixto Sanchez and Edward Cabrera. Both could join the rotation this Summer and create a formidable starting five. There is significant talent on the mound in the system and they have a fantastic Pitching Coach in Mel Stottlemyre, Jr. Starting Pitching is the clear strength of the Miami Marlins organization, along with the Ice Cream Machine in the Press Box.

Andre: Seeing some of those top-end prospects make their debuts. Already early in the spring, Chisholm, Bleday, Monte Harrison and Jerar Encarnacion are among those that have earned some playing time in Grapefruit League games and shown glimpses of their tools. It’s going to be interesting to see those players develop not just at the big-league level but even at Double-A and Triple-A this coming season.

Sean: Really, these last two answers can be merged, because it’s the prospects for me as well. I’m a touch more cynical on some of recent prospect moves, particularly the surrendering of Zac Galen for Jazz Chisholm. That said, I’m really excited how things shake out, particularly in what Miami’s starting rotation looks like come midseason. Will Sixto Sanchez break through? Can Pablo Lopez turn in a full, and fully consistent season? Will Alcantara prove those final two months were the new bar, and establish himself as an ace worthy of the name? I have fond memories of a flurry of pitching debuts in the early 2000s, legacy names like Brad Penny, AJ Burnett, and Josh Beckett, plus brief flashes from a Chuck Smith or Jason Grilli. Someone was always coming up, till all of a sudden, it clicked. The sense is that those days are returning. I’d be surprised if another Hanley Ramirez or Giancarlo Stanton type star steps forward at the plate in 2020. But, I’ll be disappointed if the Marlins don’t close 2020 with one of their five best pitching rotations ever. 

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