Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series! OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter. It’s Playing Pepper! Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season. I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole. So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!
Around these parts, we tend to think about the Cardinals having an uphill climb last year given their COVID outbreak. While they were out the longest, they weren’t the first to deal with the situation. Miami not only overcame an outbreak to make the playoffs, they did it with a team that wasn’t expected to contend in the first place. Can they do it again in a full season? Let’s find out!
|Call to the Pen
C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?
Sean: It was definitely a unique experience. And a constantly evolving one. I’ll be honest, I was unsure about returning initially, and openly irate for a week there when baseball didn’t shut down over the Marlins outbreak. Wrote an article or two wondering whether MLB’s reaction would have been the same if it happened to the Yankees, a sentiment I was far from alone in expressing. Admittedly, as Miami proceeded to rack up wins despite the hand they were dealt, I gave up my outrage and just morphed into an over the moon fan. With the possible exception of 2016, it was the most I’d enjoyed a season in over a decade. As for my experience following it, it really changed very little. I’ve been a Florida ex-pat since 2007, so it’s still all about MLB TV for me. However, I do love to stadium chase, and I had to cancel trips to Nationals Park and Camden Yards. It was weird not having that part of my spring/summer, as I believe it was the first time since 2010 I didn’t make it into a stadium.
I hated every rule change. Every. Single. One. Baby Boomer in a Millenial’s body I guess.
Craig: The season was not without its challenges and Miami had its share for everyone. I thought the 7 inning doubleheaders were solid. I still don’t think a runner needs to be on second base to end a game. For me, I was able to attend games at Marlins Park. The most unique part of that definitely was the fake crowd noise. The second the games ended, it halted. Then complete silence. Never quite got over that. Just weird.
C70: The Marlins were able to make the playoffs even though the team was one of those most affected by COVID-19. Was that a fluke or are expectations now greater for this squad?
Sean: Sort of a miracle either of our teams ended up in the playoffs given those Covid outbreaks, isn’t it? As for whether the Marlins making it was a fluke, that’s tricky. On the one hand, absolutely. They only made it because of a bizarrely expanded playoff. Five NL teams had a better record- 117/118 times, Miami is watching from home. But that’s the only reason it was a fluke. As the saying goes, that’s why you play the games. Miami just outhustled, outwanted, and quite frequently outpitched the competition from bell to bell. I’m not going to pretend the offense was a thing of beauty, but in turn, the rest of the NL needs to not pretend the Marlins aren’t on the rise. They’re a year, and probably one big free agent hitter, away from having a chance to finish with a Top 5 record, but the team certainly isn’t thinking that way. They think they’ve arrived already, and it’s a refreshing attitude to see. It’s an exciting time to be a Marlins fan.
Craig: I don’t think it was a fluke, but they certainly outperformed their expectations. Their run differential also indicated they were not quite as good as they finished. Losing most of the squad would have appeared devastating but the players they brought in were desperate to salvage their careers. Some did. It was a unique dynamic. Expectations are definitely the same or higher. This new ownership group got the club back to the postseason for the first time since 2003. Now they want sustainable success.
C70: Were you surprised at the non-tendering of Jose Urena?
Sean: Only in the sense that the Marlins finally stopped trying to make Jose Urena happen. His national fame as a foil for Ronald Acuna and the Braves was extremely out of step with his actual baseball value. After six MLB seasons, he hasn’t even been worth 1.5 wins above replacement. And the Marlins finally have plenty of viable replacements- definitely with higher ceilings, and likely with higher floors as well. Urena would have been the sixth highest paid player on the roster had he stayed, and barring a slew of injuries, would have had a hard time finishing the season as their sixth most valuable pitcher.
Craig: Not at all. Ureña never fully developed into the pitcher they thought he could become. He was a nice back end guy who was going to make more than they wanted to pay him in arbitration. They have more talented arms.
C70: The Marlins made history by hiring the first woman general manager. What are your thoughts about Kim Ng?
Sean: All evidence suggests the Marlins just hired one of the most qualified baseball minds in the game as GM, so I’m thrilled about that. As to the history making nature of the move, I’m incredibly proud of the organization for recognizing that. I’ll be honest, I got pretty emotional reading some of the recent pieces about her journey to get to this point. I put 90% blame for that on my two-year old daughter and her forthcoming baby sister. Let’s shatter all the ceilings we can.
However, I will admit to having been a little thrown by the need to change GMs at all. It wasn’t exactly a bad 2020 season for Michael Hill, what with all the roster churning the team needed to do to weather that Covid outbreak. When Hill wasn’t retained, the reasoning offered at the time was that the team preferred to make decisions collaboratively, with the perception being that Derek Jeter and Gary Denbo were the top decision makers. So while I absolutely think Ng could take the GM job and run with it, I do wonder how far Jeter will allow any GM in his employ to run. My hope is that this hiring is about putting a more modern mind in terms of analytics and scouting in the driver’s seat. My fear is that it’s about Jeter trying to channel his inner Jerry Jones…or perhaps even his predecessor as Marlins owner.
Craig: Ng has now been on the job for a few months so I get the sense she is now familiar with the club. The first couple of months were simply a feeling out process. While many of the decisions will be hers this organization works more collaboratively than others. Now that she has seen the club she can operate knowing the players a bit more with their strengths and weaknesses. She said the club was going to bolster the bullpen and they did with several trades. She also was instrumental behind the club adding outfielder Adam Duvalk in free agency.
C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?
Sean: I expect the Marlins to be the most encouraging fourth place team in baseball, and I’m only saying fourth because I expect one of the other “not-Atlanta” teams in the NL East to fall on their face. Miami will miss the playoffs in 2021, and they’re probably going to have a losing record again. But that doesn’t mean that the 2021 Marlins won’t be a better baseball team than the 2020 club that did accomplish both of those goals. Miami could be good enough to finish second or third in every division that doesn’t end in East- that just isn’t good enough to make the playoffs this season. The price of playing in baseball’s best division, I’m afraid.
Craig: The club should not go backwards. That would be a disappointment. The division is rough, but they should be competitive. Development of the young offense players will be crucial. They have the pitching. It remains to be seen if the hitters can step up and support them. 75-80 wins is within the realm of possibility.
C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?
Sean: Solid B. I love the farm system upgrade, I really do. However, I’d rather have a Top 10 farm system and one of Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, or J.T. Realmuto than a Top 5 system without any of them. Understandably, there were off-field factors at work behind some of the moves…though you’ll notice I didn’t include Giancarlo Stanton in my firesale lament. More importantly though, the real reason for the B is that I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather have Zac Gallen instead of Jazz Chisholm. If Chisholm takes off in 2021, if he starts vaguely reminding Marlins fans of Hanley Ramirez, then change my answer to an A. If not, I think it’s a bit of a problem that going into Year 4 of a rebuild, the most exciting offensive weapon by far I can count on being there in Year 5 of the rebuild is Brian Anderson. Pitching prospects are baseball’s ultimate currency, and the Marlins front office has put together an impressive stack of chips. But someone needs to score runs, and I can’t give the team an A until that player is both on the roster and going to remain there for multiple seasons.
Craig: This offseason I would give them a C+. I think the opportunity was there to take a big step forward but it looks like that will have to wait a year. Starling Marte being back (exercised his option) is sort of their top acquisition of the past year, but they did not do much else. Their drafts the past two years look strong, but those players are not ready. A lingering TV contract negotiation may have hindered the spending. If their young hitters develop, I’ll guess they can really chase a division title in 2022. If not, they may have to change their approach on next offseason by trading pitching to help the lineup.