Playing Pepper 2023: Miami Marlins

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Miami Marlins
69-93, fourth in the NL East
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Sandy Alcantara (5.7)
Top hitter by fWAR: Jazz Chisholm Jr. (2.6)

Miami might have troubles anywhere but being in the stocked NL East does them no favors.  Even if they could get a foothold toward success, there are a lot of teams ahead of them and the top spot.  Still, there’s some exciting talent on the team making it worth watching.  How worth watching?  Let’s talk to the people that do it on a regular basis.

Contributor Site Twitter
Louis Addeo-Weiss Fish Stripes addeo_louis00
Sean Millerick Call to the Pen miasportsminute
Alex Carver Fish on the Farm marlinsminors

C70: It seemed like a little bit of a mixed bag this winter for the Marlins. How do you think the offseason went and what are your thoughts about how the team stands going into 2023?

Louis: Assessing the Marlins’ offseason on an A-F scale, I’d give the club a B-minus, and that’s with a hint of generosity thrown in. While acquiring the reigning AL Batting Champion Luis Arraez will surely improve the offense, reverting him to second base will do the opposite to help the club’s fortunes, especially given it’s forced Jazz Chisholm Jr. into center field duties after the team failed to acquire Bryan Reynolds from Pittsburgh. Johnny Cueto essentially replaces Pablo Lopez, but 2023 Johnny Cueto won’t replace Lopez’s production (though that’d be a welcome surprise) and serves as a stopgap of sorts as the fanbase salivates at the impending arrival of Eury Perez. Like Arraez, the Jean Segura addition, another, albeit more marginal offensive upgrade, sees the team foregoing defense to augment the offense. Segura appears to be set to break camp as the club’s starting third baseman, a position he has all of 24 career games at, with Joey Wendle, a plus defender at both second and third, set to be the everyday shortstop. With this in mind, I expect the pitching to be good, but the suspect defensive alignment for the first-year manager, Skip Schumaker, likely leads to some regression on the mound. 

Sean: I can see that…by MLB standards. By Marlins standards though, I actually think it was pretty solid? At any rate, I think the expression that would apply is “left a little meat on the bone.” Ideally, they would have added a better bat in free agency than Jean Segura, and traded for an All-Star center fielder that made the All-Star Game last year as a center fielder. Unfortunately, the player’s wants are part of the equation in free agency, and there’s a growing amount of evidence that players don’t want to come to Miami. Not until they prove they can win, not until they start handing out big contracts, not until they pull a reverse Orioles and move the fences in 30 feet. All of that being said, they traded for the reigning AL Batting Champion in Luis Arraez. They added Segura. They added significant talent to the bullpen. They’re healthy. It should be a much deeper lineup in 2023. They have a new manager you might have heard of on the Cardinals beat in Skip Schumaker, and the early buzz is that the entire clubhouse has really bought into what he is selling. Throw in Jazz Chisholm making the cover of MLB The Show and for the first time in a long time, it’s a positive vibe coming out of the other side of Roger Dean Stadium. 

Alex: The Marlins entered the 2023 offseason following a 69 win season, their ninth worst in 29 seasons, with two clear cut holes: shortstop and center field. In 2022, the Marlins made due with a mixture of the aging Miguel Rojas and utility players Joey Wendle, Jon Berti, and prospects at short while they attempted to work other prospects such as Jesus Sanchez, Bryan De La Cruz, Peyton Burdick, and JJ Bleday into regular work in center field. This offseason, Rojas and Bleday exited the organization and the Marlins did not directly fill either the starting shortstop or center field positions. What they did do was made decisions that they hope will suffice at those spots while prioritizing more offense. The most spoken about decision was move their franchise player Jazz Chisholm Jr, who missed the second half of 2022 with back and knee issues to a much more demanding defensive position in the outfield. Taking over for Jazz at second base will be the 2022 AL batting champ Luis Arraez whom the Marlins acquired for Pablo Lopez and infield prospect Jose Salas. Arraez was another offense-over-defense move that will be asked to table set at the top of the Marlins’ lineup. At short, the Marlins will rely on a mixture of Joey Wendle and minor league signings Jose Iglesias and Garrett Hampson with Jon Berti as a super utility player off the bench. Another new signing, Jean Segura is coming off of a down year in which he hit .277/.336/.387. He’s expected to man third base in place of the departing Brian Anderson.

Can Jazz learn and stick in center after just a single winter and spring of learning while remaining healthy? Can Arraez reacclimate to second base? Can the team get by at shortstop? Will Cooper and Gurriel stay healthy at first base be at least league average defenders? Can Segura play an effective third base? These are some of the main questions the Marlins will need to answer if they hope to become competitive this season.

What is clear is that the Marlins will be prioritizing winning this season. With the departure of Don Mattingly came the hiring of Skip Schumaker who has used the W word more than any other through spring training so far. It’s clear from the way he speaks and from his experience as a player and coach so far that winning is all he knows and why Kim Ng, who is in the final year of her contract as GM, sought him out as the best man for the Marlins’ vacancy.

C70: Jorge Solar struggled last year, yet he’ll be the highest paid Marlin in 2023. Can he bounce back and be effective?

Louis: It should be noted that expectations for Soler should’ve been tempered from the outset of 2022 given his limited defensive profile and prolific nature for which he strikes out (6th most K’s between 2019-21). As far as whether or not he can bounce back, batted ball data (99th percentile in Max Exit velocity and the fact that he still slugged .500 on fastballs) suggests a bounceback – in whatever means that may be – is more than a likelihood.

Sean: Darn- would feel a lot more confident in calling for a bounceback if you had asked about Avisail Garcia, Miami’s AAV leader. All reports are that he actually might be in that “best shape of his life” fans read so much about this time of year. As for Jorge Soler, the 2023 salary leader, I can offer you the fact that it’s an odd numbered year? He does seem to save his best efforts for those seasons. No doubt, 2022 was a disaster for him. Pick a career average stat you’d remotely care about, and he was dramatically below it. Regression to the mean alone will make him much more effective in 2023, provided he can stay on the field. The 2019 version of Soler that clubbed 48 HRs and hit over .260 is never coming back in this new deadened ball environment. But one that hits 25 to 30? That can easily happen. There was no decline in exit velocity from 2021, and while he did technically post his lowest hard hit rate since 2018, that can probably just be attributed to playing hurt. He should DH more this season, and that should help. Bottom-line, his best seasons might be behind him, and through an MLB lens, he probably won’t be worth the money he’s earning. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a key asset for a power starved Marlins roster though. In this lineup, even just a 25 homer season would be game changing. If he stays healthy, he does that in his sleep. 

Alex: Soler, the Marlins’ $36 million man last season, is healthy once again and prepped to handle regular DH duties for the club in 2023 with one of Jesus Sanchez or Bryan De La Cruz regularly manning left field. Even when healthy in 2022, Soler struggled mightily to find consistent contact as he posted a 98 wRC+, the lowest he’s posted in any season during which he played at least 100 games since his first full season in 2015.

Soler was brought to the Marlins to do one thing: hit for power. As such, Miami will overlook a K rate of near 30% if he can put out 25+. The extremely pull heavy Soler will also benefit from rule changes that ban shifts. In 2022, he was pull shifted 78% of the time. That said, Soler will need to improve how he views and produces against breaking stuff. Last year, his expected slugging against breaking pitches fell 100 points and his expected batting average dropped nearly 50 points from where it was in 2021 while his whiff rate again topped 40%.

It’d be pretty hard for Soler to be much less productive than he was in 2022. If everything goes right for Soler and he is able to at least reach/fight off breaking pitches more consistently while he waits for fastballs, he will get a lot closer to the plateau the Marlins hoped for when they signed him. So far in spring, he’s one of few Marlins to leave the yard, so optimism is present.

C70: Besides Sandy Alcantara, who are you most interested in watching in the starting rotation?

Louis: There are several nuances to Miami’s rotation, and each pitcher comes with their own narrative we’ll soon see answered; Will Alcantara replicate or flirt with another 8-rWAR season (the first in franchise history) in an effort to defend his Cy Young-winning 2022? Is the Trevor Rogers we see in 2023 the Trevor Rogers of two years prior, or should we be sufficed with an amalgam of 2021 and 2022? Can Edward Cabrera pitch 150 innings and do so while reigning in his suspect command? Among 188 pitchers with at least 70 IP last season, Cabrera’s 4.1 BB9 ranked 178th. But to answer your question, Jesus Luzardo, the sport’s former number-one pitching prospect, is my lock for what I’ll dumb the Marlins “Dos Equis Dude”. Posting the 13th-best K9 among 140 pitchers to throw at least 100 innings, Luzardo did so while allowing just 69 hits in his 100.1 IP. A full season of him is something I can easily envision as Cy Young-caliber.

Sean: It would be very easy to give the same answer to this question as well as your next one, but let’s go with Trevor Rogers here. His MLB career is really a story of two extremes at this point. The 2021 pitcher that would have won Rookie of the Year if he didn’t miss a month and/or played in a bigger market, and the 2022 pitcher that was at best the seventh most effective starting pitcher the Marlins used last season. Which one of those outcomes is closer to the truth? Early on this spring, as well as late last season before his year ended with a lat injury, it looks like he could actually be closer to that 2021 version. There is a ton of focus on the younger arms right now. Jesus Luzardo, Edward Cabrera, even top prospect Eury Perez to a certain extent. At least one of them is going to be a stud. But if Rogers can even just split the difference between his 2021 and 2022 finishes in 2023? To me, that’s the difference between a playoff contending starting rotation and another season as an also ran. 

Alex: The easy answer here is Jesus Luzardo. Acquired from the A’s at the deadline in 2021, the fiery lefty was off to a bit of an up-and-down start in 2022 before falling victim to a forearm issue that caused him to spend a stint on the 60-day IL. After returning in August though, Luzardo began to show his true potential. In his final 12 outings of the season, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas alumni held down a 3.03 ERA in 71.1 IP. He struck out 79 and walked just 19. Nine of those 12 outings were quality starts.

Since he was a high schooler, Luzardo has always had the stuff to become a top three rotational starter. Early in his big league career, his biggest crux that caused him to trip back and forth between the majors and minors was the consistency of his command. Via refined mechanics, Luzardo has started to show what he can be at his peak. With four pitches and more than solid velo separation, Luzardo is a very exciting pitcher capable of big things. He just needs to stay healthy to continue to prove to Oakland why they shouldn’t have given up on him.

C70: There are a number of younger players on the Miami roster. Which rookie (or someone with minimal MLB experience) will make the most impact this season?

Louis: Jordan Groshans debuted last year, and while he didn’t ‘wow’ anyone, his minor league track record (.366 OBP in 249 G) suggests he’s better than the 77 OPS+ he showed in his cup of coffee in 2022. Jacob Amaya is likely the shortstop of the future, but Wendle has the job to start the season, and it’d appear Amaya’s best path to impacting the 2023 team would come either at the behest of Wendle either being traded or missing time on the injured list. 

Sean: Have to go back to the pitching well here, and one of those aforementioned younger starters. Edward Cabrera enters spring as arguably the biggest unknown in Miami’s rotation. Talent for days, but plenty of injury questions as well. Since debuting in 2021, he hasn’t come close to proving that he can survive the rigors of a full MLB season. Consequently, his challenging Sandy Alcantara for the team lead in innings pitched isn’t really on the table. But if he can reproduce last year’s numbers (3.01 ERA, 1.07 WHIP), over even just 120 to 130 IP? Look out MLB. And not to smuggle in two answers here…but let’s smuggle in two. Luzardo is actually my favorite of the young guns- I legitimately think he could end 2023 regarded as one of the Top 30 starters in the game. But he technically has more MLB experience than even Trevor Rogers, and is a couple months older. So picking him felt disingenuous. Cabrera is the relative baby of the group that will be breaking camp at 24 years old, and also seems the most loathed by the projection systems. Put simply, he really likes walking people. But then again, so did another pitcher on Miami’s roster once upon a time. That guy just won the NL Cy Young. Players can improve, and I expect Cabrera to do so if his body can hold up. 

Alex: Despite his struggles in his MLB debut last year, I have not moved off of my excitement about Peyton Burdick.

Burdick is a 6’, 205 lb ton of bricks who had a record-setting collegiate career at Wright State University. Burdick handled himself well through the AA level well in his MiLB career. Last season though, his ability to find consistent contact fell off a bit. It permeated into his MLB debut where he hit just .207/.287/.380 in his first 32 games. My questions around Burdick surrounded how the Marlins would be able to preserve his greatest natural tool, incredible physicality, while improving his overall approach and plate vision. So far this spring, Burdick, who looks even further physically improved, seems to be answering those questions advantageously. In only limited time since they first got acclimated, Burdick has worked successfully with new hitting coach Brant Brown who recognized certain weaknesses. By staying back in his stance more and getting his powerful lower half fully involved in his swing and by not throwing off his timing by opening up off his front leg, Burdick has shown vast improvement in his ability to make consistent contact.

Unfortunately, with the spring acquisitions of other bench pieces such as Gurriel and Iglesias, there likely won’t be room for Burdick on the Opening Day roster. However, if the same contact consistency we saw from Burdick this spring permeates during the early months of the season in AAA, there is no doubt he will be one of the first to be called upon to contribute to the big league club this season.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Louis: Best case: 85-87 wins and a bottom-tier wild card berth. Worst case: 67-73 wins as the club trades away a mix of veterans and controllable pieces for the next group of “what-ifs” for an impending core. Most likely: The team finishes somewhere between 74-77 wins, missing the playoffs for the third straight season, as they improve on some fronts, but the aforementioned mistakes prove their undoing. 

Sean: The best case scenario I keep coming back to is the 2021 San Francisco Giants. On paper, heading into the season, it made zero sense that they would be good as they were. They really only had one true star, and one coming into the year with injury questions. The rest of the team? Capable enough bats and some solid pitchers. PECOTA had them at 75 wins that February, yet they ended up winning 107. The Marlins won’t be doing that. Then again, the 2023 Marlins have way more pitching talent than that Giants team did. Miami’s greatest offensive weapon in Chisholm has yet to reach his ceiling, whereas Posey was squeezing the last baseball left in his body out for that 2021 San Francisco team. As was Brandon Crawford. Defensive woes will plague this Marlins team all season, and the 2023 NL East is way more competitive than the 2021 NL West. Sixty percent of that division finished under .500. Sixty percent of the 2023 NL East is expected to make the playoffs, and the Marlins aren’t one of those teams. So the 32-game jump those 2021 Giants made is out. However, a franchise best 20-game jump for the 2023 Marlins? If they stay healthy, I think that is definitely on the table.

The worst case is that injuries happen, at either a similar rate that they did last season, or worse. The Marlins got better offensively, but they didn’t really get any better at all when it comes to offensive depth that could help in 2023. They also regressed defensively in order to gain those offensive improvements. Really regressed. The lineup is a house of cards. If even one falls, this team probably doesn’t win 70 games.

Of course, the most likely outcome is the middle. Less injuries, and less severe ones, but still injuries. Either that, or all of them stay healthy, but Sandy misses a month because…he’s a pitcher, and thus the most injury prone class of athlete in professional sports. One of the three young pitchers I’ve mentioned is awesome, but one either blows an elbow or is just terrible. Miami is still much improved, still beats their projection, but is once again a loser at season’s end. They win 80 games.

Alex: The best case scenario is that the Marlins’ defensive experiments wind up successful, everyone stays healthy, and the money they spent on their offense lives up to its potential and supports their starting pitching. Success will also depend on if, when and how much Jorge Soler and Avisail Garcia are able to return to their previous levels of production. If all of that happens, the Marlins could find themselves in contention for a playoff spot. The worst case scenario is that the Marlins’ lack of depth on the infield and in center field isn’t helped and the team gets caught in a revolving door of positional changes. If injuries also permeate on the level they did last season, the team could find themselves in a real struggle.

With a more balanced lineup at least to start and more than enough starting pitching to succeed, I will place the team’s overall level of success slightly better than last season but will expect that they still find themselves looking up at playoff teams with a 74-88 record.

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