It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching. Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside. Not in this space! Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch. There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper! If you want to keep up with the Marlins during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well. You can follow that here!
After edging into an expanded playoffs in 2020, the Marlins returned to an area they were more familiar with. Since 2017, they’ve finished 20 or more games out of first place every year save the shortened season and haven’t been within single digits of first since 2009. (Of course, since they have two World Series and no divisional titles, the Marlins may also believe first is overrated.) Can they return to contention without needing a pandemic? We’ve got the folks to ask!
|Alex Carver||Fish On The Farm||marlinsminors|
|Sean Millerick||Call To The Pen||miasportsminute|
C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Miami’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?
Alex: Miami’s offseason had one objective: improve the major league roster and win now. Not only did the Marlins lock up their ace, Sandy Alcantara, they made a moves that will impact the major league club immediately. After trading away two major pieces of their Opening Day outfield in Adam Duvall and Starling Marte, the Marlins, though deep in the outfield in the minors but thin in the “right now”, had some holes to fill. They effectively filled one of them when they signed free agent Avisail Garcia to a four year, $53 million contract. Garcia comes to the Marlins as a .270/.325/.431, 10.9 WAR player. He’s also coming off of his first year on the plus side of dWAR in which he spent the entire year (minus one game) in right field. It is expectant that Garcia plays a much less demanding left field for Miami.
Garcia excites with his extreme power potential. Coming off a career high 29 homers last year, Garcia was in the 73rd percentile in average exit velocity, the 78th in hard hit percentage and the 80th percentile in terms of barrel contact, easily allowing us to overlook his ugly strikeout numbers. The 6’4”, 250 pounder is also very athletic and shows surprising speed for a man his size. In 2021, his sprint speed ranked in the 88th percentile, more than enough to cover the outfield at loanDepot park. How will the bat translate from Milwaukee to Miami? In 2021, Garcia actually hit for a better average away from American Family Field. He’s also taken an early liking to loanDepot l by hitting two home runs in four games. An athletic power-first threat who hits for more than enough average to negate his heightened K rate, Garcia will be an every day starter with the ability to handle multiple outfield positions or DH.
The Marlins made their next splash by acquiring the dynamic Joey Wendle from Tampa Bay in a one for one swap. The return to the Rays was outfielder Kameron Misner. Wendle, a guy who can play anywhere and who will hit for a plus average while limiting strikeouts, is a great addition for the Marlins in that he provides super utility reassurance and an insurance policy for the often-injured Brian Anderson. But in my opinion he came at a hefty price.
From there, Miami set out to fill its two biggest holes: catcher and center field. They filled the first of those very advantageously by acquiring Jacob Stallings from the Pirates. Not much of a prospect before 2021 and a guy that was passed through waivers twice, Stallings, the epitome of a late bloomer, broke out in a big way hitting .246/.336/.369. On top of that, Stallings won a Gold Glove for his work behind the plate which includes fantastic game calling, receiving and blocking ability, assets that will strongly benefit the Marlins’ young pitching staff.
The team was very engaged in trade talks with many teams for names such as Bryan Reynolds, Teoscar Hernandez and Ramon Laureano but they balked on each of the asking prices. Instead, Miami went the free agent route and signed Jorge Soler to a three year $36 million deal. While Soler who is coming off a World Series MVP award win, will provide a power boost, he will also strike out a lot and he is limited to corner outfield defense.
The Marlins are definitely a much improved team as they enter 2022 but they could have been better if they were willing to come off of their top organizational prospects. Many fans are of the opinion that the team hasn’t done enough to fully commit to their message of becoming a win now team and that assessment is very fair. Per reports though, the talks on Reynolds and perhaps other targets the Marlins looked at could resume later this season. That is our silver lining.
Sean: The Marlins did a lot. The club ended 2021 with arguably the worst catching in the majors, and just about the worst offense. Miami very quickly made moves to address both problems. They swung a trade for Gold Glove winner Jacob Stallings from Pittsburgh, acquired Joey Wendle from Tampa, and signed a slugger in Avisail Garcia. All this while simultaneously locking up their one elite player, Sandy Alcantara, with a long-term extension. Fast forward through a couple months of lockout, and they signed another free agent slugger in Jorge Soler. Miami hasn’t had this much potential pop since at least 2017, if not 2008. That being said, this is still a lineup very dependent on a lot going just right- a lot of health and a lot of growth. I’d have liked to have seen a bigger star brought in. The rumor is that All-Star CF Brian Reynolds was heavily pursued, but that Miami balked at the prospect price. I think they should have paid it- Reynolds would have made them a real contender in 2022.
C70: Does Sandy Alcantara get overlooked playing in Miami? What sort of season do you expect from him in 2022?
Alex: There is no question about it: several members of the Marlins rotation would be much more well respected nationally if they played in other markets. Last season, Alcantara threw the fourth most innings in baseball and had a 4.2 pitcher WAR, better than the likes of Adam Wainwright and Jacob deGrom both of whom received Cy Young votes. Sandy did not receive one. Sandy is one of the better pitchers in baseball, the epitome of the term bulldog and has emerged as the unquestioned leader of the Marlins’ pitching staff, three things he will remain for a long time after Miami locked him up this offseason.
Sean: That’s tough, and I think it depends on who is doing the looking. The reality is that Sandy might already be one of the ten best pitchers in MLB, something diehard fans know- especially if they play fantasy baseball. But it’s also true that he might only be the fifth best pitcher in his own division. Throw in the fact that the Marlins aren’t exactly your modern model of a modern major contender, and I guess you could say the secret isn’t quite out on Alcantara. But that should change even if he’s only as good as he was in 2021 – and I expect him to take another step. Partly that’s just because the offense will be better. He was among the league leaders in quality starts and innings pitched last season- and had a 9-15 record. Fans like wins, and he should have better luck and run support in 2022. But he also might just be better himself – he’s still just 26. The strikeouts improved significantly over the second half last year. A full season of that would firmly make him one of the game’s elite.
C70: What do you think the most glaring weakness of this team is?
Alex: A few months ago, this was simple to answer: catcher. As excited as Marlins fans should be about the addition of Stallings, though, the other big glaring hole in the Marlins lineup from last season remains: center field. At their first press conference of Spring Training, Kim Ng and Bruce Sherman made it clear that they were focusing on offense first by echoing the sentiment that “we need bats”. They stuck to that strategy signed free agent Jorge Soler to a three year, $26 million deal. As welcome as Soler’s power potential will be in the middle of the Marlins’ lineup, he doesn’t play center field. So the question remains: who is the Marlins’ true center fielder?
The answer: the Miami Marlins do not have a true starting center fielder entering 2022 nor (even though JJ Bleday and Peyton Burdick are learning and can fill space out there) do they have a true center fielder close right now in the minor leagues. On Opening Day, it is looking like new acquisition Avisail Garcia will be tasked with covering the cavernous ground at loanDepot park. In 90 career games, Garcia has a -10 defensive runs saved. With Soler, Garcia and burgeoning rookie Jesus Sanchez, the Marlins outfield looks like it could post some big offensive numbers in 2022 but it will struggle defensively, particularly up the middle, until trade talks are revisited perhaps at the deadline.
On the pitching side, the Marlins probably have the best long term starting pitching depth in baseball as well as one of the best pitching development systems. However, they didn’t make many upgrades to their MLB bullpen this offseason, a pen that posted the seventh worst ERA in baseball last year. Subpar bullpen and below average outfield defense? I don’t like that combination.
Sean: The bullpen. It was a mixed bag last season to be kind, and closer was a revolving door. So far going into 2022, they have done nothing of consequence to improve it. The only acquisition of any real note was for Louis Head, who is a 31-yr old with 35.0 IP of big league experience. When asked about whether the team will make a move for a more significant piece, GM Kim Ng said they had to focus on getting an impact bat first before worrying about the bullpen. Which…frankly only makes sense if the scouting department consists of one person, and they were banned from watching video or reading a scouting report since the last day of the regular season. From the time that comment was made to the day the Soler signing was announced, at least six relievers signed free agent deals. Not making it more of a priority was baffling for a team that says they want to win now.
C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?
Alex: An almost impossible question for me to answer because I am excited about a lot of guys in this system. Of course there’s the guys who are close that everyone is talking about such as JJ Bleday, Max Meyer, Peyton Burdick, etc. So I’ll use this as an opportunity to talk about a deeper down name that people should get to know: Jose Salas.
Salas is an 18-year-old international signing out of the 2019-20 signing period. He earned the highest bonus of all 11 Marlins signings. At the time he was touted as the most advanced hitter in the class. That was on full display in Salas’ first pro showing in the FCL this past year. In his first 28 career games, Salas slashed .370/.458/.511. He put existing power potential on display by hitting a homer as well as 10 doubles. Promoted to the full season A level, Salas hit another bomb and four more two baggers. Already with present exit velos regularly over 100 mph via good present strength and superb bat speed, Salas has plenty of room to build more power as he matures. I place the raw power grade at 50/65 and the game power at 40/60. Salas is also currently a pretty good runner. While the speed could diminish a bit as he grows, it should remain a plus tool capable of 20 steals. The knocks on Salas right now lie in his hit tool. Salas is extremely pull happy and will struggle against plus stuff, specifically breaking stuff, on the outer half leading to the swing getting a bit loopy. There are also question marks around where Salas sticks long term defensively. With his power potential and strong throwing arm, I personally think he will move to third base playing to the left of 2022 first round pick Kahlil Watson. A quick-twitch athlete capable for four of five tools who already checks many boxes with all the time in the world on his side to develop, Salas is a very exciting prospect who should start 2022 back in Jupiter.
Sean: Max Meyer without question, provided he stays with the organization. He is almost certain to be moved if that splashy Reynolds trade takes place, and that would still be my preference. But there’s a reason Meyer is so coveted – his stuff is simply electric. He has just about the best slider you’ll come across amongst MLB prospects, and may have the best one in the Marlins system. Which is saying something given the starting pitchers on the big league roster. Oh, and he can also hit 100 mph on the gun when wanted. He’s still a two pitch pitcher, to the point there’s a lot of chatter outside the Marlins that he will end up as a reliever. Honestly, I don’t see that as a knock at all. Josh Hader is my favorite non-Marlins pitcher, and the team’s bullpen is insanely lacking in high velocity arms- I’d love to see him made into a closer. However, the Marlins still see him as a starter. Maybe that works, maybe it doesn’t. I just know I can’t wait to see him pitch this season, in whatever capacity.
C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?
Alex: The Marlins promised to be a competitive team in 2022. They promised they wanted to win. And they will. But will they win enough to make it back to the postseason? Debatable.
The team will be lean heavily on its starting pitching. Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Trevor Rogers (who could have easily won Rookie of the Year in 2021 if not for a late season absence) are all back and look just dandy this spring. Behind the top three, the Marlins have Jesus Luzardo who had a great spring debut showing much better command of a fastball he can ramp to 99 and that sits 97 as well as improved movement on a nasty curve that he threw both in and out of the zone for strikes. If the stuff and command and control stagnates, Luzardo could reach the ceiling of a very viable back end starter. Top prospect Edward Cabrera should be back as well. After carving up the minors for two and a half months, Edward got seven starts with Miami and turned in mixed results, but there is still plenty to like about the 24-year-old with three 60 grade pitches who can hit triple digits, especially in this system. The Marlins also have many arms they can lean on after those five to eat some innings including Elieser Hernandez, Braxton Garrett, Dan Castano, Cody Poteet and others. Waiting in the wings is Max Meyer who was nearly untouchable despite being challenged to the AA level in his first year pro and who absolutely dazzled in his spring training debut.
Where the Marlins will struggle is out of the bullpen and on defense. However, if the offense can do enough to negate those two factors, the Fish should finish with a respectable record. I think it will come down to how a lot of Miami’s younger players such as Jazz Chisholm Jr, Jesus Sanchez and aforementioned starters Luzardo and Cabrera. If those players are able to take the next step in their development and if the team as a whole can be much healthier than it was last year, the Marlins could surprise a lot of people and, with the expanded playoffs, find themselves as a buyer at the deadline. As they are right now, I have the team realistically finishing at 82-80.
Sean: I expect a lot of improvement, at least 10 games worth. But the problem is every team that finished in front of Miami in 2021 in the NL East improved a lot as well, including the World Series champions. I see a 78-84 finish. Competitive, fun to watch, in shouting distance in September…but not a winner yet. Mostly that’s because of the bullpen, partly that’s just because I’m not sure I’ve ever seen everything go right for an MLB team. The path to a playoff bound Marlins team in 2022 requires just that sort of thing happening. Fix that bullpen though, and I’ll buy Miami’s first 80 win season since 2010.
C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Marlins Twitter accounts to follow.
Alex: @fishstripes – I am a former contributor to this source and have stayed in regular contact with them since I have been running this. Ely Sussman, the managing editor, does an amazing job giving young people who aspire for a future in journalism to start and build their careers. They are fantastic people and they pump out great content daily on a variety of platforms.
@DanielDeVivo – my cohost on my podcast Swimming Upstream and a wealth of knowledge when it comes to Marlins prospects. He was telling us about Eury Perez, arguably the Marlins’ top prospect, before anyone else.
@MiamiMarlins_UK – Peter Pratt is the host of two podcasts, Fish Across the Pond and the Locked On Marlins podcast which cranks out daily Marlins podcasts, something Pete still made happen during the lockout. One of the best guys we know, Pete and his “UK Goats” are some of the best dudes we know and some of the most knowledgeable people in the Marlins’ baseball media community despite living thousands of miles away. South Beach vibes with a UK flare. These guys are a fantastic follow and a great listen.
Sean: Good question, there are a lot of great follows. But it’s Craig Mish (@CraigMish) by a mile at the top. He’s as plugged in as anyone, and if you want recent proof, he did break the Derek Jeter story. Very insightful always, seems to know everything that’s going on, has the pulse of the team. Puts out a really solid podcast as well along with Jeremy Tache (@jeremytache), who’s honestly not a bad 1B response to this question. Secondly, it’s a bit chalk, but the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson (@flasportsbuzz) is currently my favorite local sports writer. His brief does extend beyond the Marlins, but he’s always very focused in his analysis and puts all the information out there for fans to digest- which works really well for both the baseball fan and the history major in me. Lastly, @FishStripes is a great mix of everything Marlins, from MLB news to some deep dives on prospects. They even put out a weekly Marlins Jeopardy show this offseason, which really took off on the Marlins Twitterverse during the long lockout- the only thing about it that could have been better was my performance in Final Jeopardy. But it’s a really creative site, and well worth the time of Marlins fans.