It’s been a long time since the Marlins made the playoffs – 12 years, to be exact. I worded that sentence that way intentionally; instead of saying “Miami” Marlins, because the “Miami” Marlins have never made the postseason. They’ve never even sniffed it.
In three seasons since dropping the word “Florida” from their name and transforming their digs to bright red-orange in lieu of black, white and (very little) teal, the Miami Marlins haven’t done much of anything. They’ve never had a winning season, and they finished in last place in the National League East two of those three years, and next-to-last in the other. They lost 100 games in 2013. They’ve turned over the roster more than a teenage girl changes her mind about what to wear on a Friday night. Only three players that were with the team the day Marlins Park opened in 2012 are still on the roster (two of them are relief pitchers.)
The front office promised quality baseball and excitement on the field when the shiny new ballpark in Little Havana opened three years ago. They haven’t followed through on that promise yet, but in Jeffrey Loria’s defense, he didn’t specifiy when those things would happen. He’s a crafty businessman and an even craftier wordsmith.
Now, with the 2015 season nearly upon us, there is plenty of optimism flowing through the Marlins faithful. After trudging through a rebuilding year in 2013 and a surprisingly successful 2014, the team appears to be in position to maybe end that decade-plus playoff drought.
The fans, who effectively boycotted the team by just not showing up to games a couple years ago, slowly trickled back into Marlins Park last year to watch a fresh team that turned some heads and was actually in the Wild Card conversation in the last month of the season. With the record signing of Giancarlo Stanton, cost-effective acquisitions of Michael Morse and Ichiro Suzuki, and strategic trades for Mat Latos, Dee Gordon and Martin Prado, the 2015 Marlins are in an unfamiliar position: they’re ready to win without breaking the bank.
The Marlins 2012 season lives in infamy as a result of questionable spending and poor roster structure. That was the first year the franchise really made major splashes in the free agent market, but they felt they could do so with the project revenue the new park would net. That didn’t happen though, and we all know what came next.
Fast forward just three years later, and on paper the Marlins don’t really have much of a weakness anywhere on the big league roster. Maybe at shortstop, but that’s a story for another day.
The Marlins rebuilt much more quickly than anyone would have guessed, and this year’s iteration of the team has more promise than any I can think of. The problem is, a lot of things will have to go very right and defy probability for the team to be legitimate deep playoff threats. The Marlins feel their roster is pretty much set, and they are carrying some lofty goals into the season:
Unfortunately, when you look at projections and advanced metrics, the team is probably still one or two pieces away from really contending. And with some of the moves the Washington Nationals have made recently, it looks like the NL East will be that much more challenging. If the season started today, the only realistic battle in the division would probably be between three teams for second place.
The significant new Marlin bats are expected to be worth 4.3 net wins, according to Fangraphs. That’s a measured improvement on offense. Fangraphs also projects the Marlins to finish exactly .500 at 81-81, up from their 77-85 record in 2014. Keep in mind that also factors in 18 games against what should be a disastrous Philadelphia Phillies club that projects to lose 94 games.
Then, factor in newcomer Mat Latos’ expected value of 1.8 WAR in 179 innings (assuming he stays healthy; he only made 16 starts last year due to various injuries) along with the other guaranteed members of the rotation:
Henderson Alvarez is expected to fall off sharply from his All-Star performance a year ago, and Dan Haren might never actually see the mound in a Marlins uniform. Alvarez was worth five wins in 2014, and projects to be worth less than two this season.
This is not a team built to win 88 games. With the unlikely addition of James Shields in place of what should be a replacement-level fifth starter somewhere in the rotation, the Marlins rotation would be a wash compared to last year’s, and would improve by three or four wins overall. Do the math; that’s still three games away from their “objective,” and still five wins or so behind the Washington juggernaut.
But Shields probably isn’t happening, and the team might be spinning its wheels.
For all the encouraging moves they’ve made this offseason, the Marlins likely won’t make major strides as the roster currently stands. They might have a very small window in which to contend, with Mat Latos a free agent after this season, a slew of young core players set for big raises soon, and Stanton becoming progressively more expensive in the coming years.
I understand it’s the team’s job to generate excitement for the upcoming season. They can’t realistically advertise that they are probably an average team, and they can’t market their new players as probably-not-good-enough-to-go-all-the-way. But I read Twitter every day, and there are a lot of fans out there seemingly too smitten with Dee Gordon and Dan Haren, and perhaps with a bit too much blind fandom to understand the team will, in all likelihood, fall short of the playoffs once again.
As much as I would love to be wrong, I am will go into this season excited for baseball to start again, yet cautiously optimistic about the Marlins. Of course, and as Joe Frisaro will tell you, baseball games aren’t played on paper, nor are they simulated by computers. The Marlins could very well over-achieve, and in eight months we might look back on this article and point and laugh at me and how wrong I was.
Player projection tables courtesy of Fangraphs.