Monday, March 30, 2015

NL East Preview: Marlins

Fangraphs’ 2015 Projection: 81-81
Fangraph’s 2015 playoff odds: 29.3%

As much fun as I have criticizing Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, and as much as he deserves it for lyingto tax paying citizens in Miami, the Marlins have a core of young talent that will make them fun to watch in the years to come. Even if the bandwagon Miami fans only show up for the playoffs,sorta.

Obviously, the face of the franchise is Giancarlo Stanton, even though his face isn’t as pretty asit used to be. He is projected for a whopping 6 WAR. Obviously, a lot of that value comes from his potent offensive ability. He is pegged for nearly a .400 wOBA and might be the best hitter in the NL East, giving Trout and Miguel Cabrera a run for their money in all of baseball. If you could say Stanton is underrated in any way, it would be his defense. Don’t get me wrong, no one will mistake him for Willie Mays out in right field, but his athleticism and strong arm make him an above average defensive player, as if his bat wasn’t dangerous enough on his own.

Joining Stanton in the outfield is a pair of young players who seem to be getting better on a daily basis. If fantasy baseball is your thing, call these guys “sleepers” if you want, although the baseball world certainly hasn’t underrated them this offseason. In left field, Christian Yelich offers value in all facets of the game, good enough for 3.3 WAR in 2015. Yelich has a great combination of speed, defense, and a disciplined plate approach you would expect out of a veteran. He hit a few home runs last year, but strangely enough his swing produces an inordinate amount of ground balls. He still hit a fair share of line drives, so it’s not like he wasn’t hitting the ball hard. Power also peaks in the late twenties, so he has a few years to go to grow into his swing and, hopefully for Marlins fans, more power. Roaming center field is Marcell Ozuna, pegged for 3.1 WAR. He is an adequate baserunner and adequate defender in center, but he really shines in the power department. As is all the rage these days, Ozuna sells out for power. His OBP leaves something to be desired, but he makes up for it by hitting for extra base hits consistently. If he can learn to limit his swinging to pitches he can hit and raises that on base percentage, he will be a star.

The Marlins were very active during the offseason, going after players in a way that makes one believe that the front office has focused on capitalizing on this year’s team. They gave up a top rated pitching prospect named Andrew Heaney in a deal that brought in Dee Gordon from the Dodgers. Gordon, a second baseman who converted from shortstop, garnered All Star honors after a huge first half of 2014 where he hit for average, stole a lot of bases, and more than held his own on defense. He came crashing back to earth with a thud in the second of the season, though, and Marlins fans should realistically expect him to more resemble the second half player than the force of nature he was in the first half as he is projected for only 1.3 WAR. The Marlins also picked up a useful player in Martin Prado, who can play a multitude of positions and hold his own at the dish. Finally, in what might be the biggest move of the season, the Marlins signed Navy Yard Notes favorite Mike Morse, ensuring Miami will grow to love “Take on Me” in no time.

All discussions of the Marlins pitching staff have to begin with Felix Hernandez. After setting the world on fire in his debut as a rookie, Fernandez had to go under the knife for Tommy John surgery last year. While he isn’t close to making it back to the mound at this time, it is certainly reasonable to expect to see him back on the mound around the All Star break, just in time for the Marlins second half push towards the playoffs. As we have mentioned before, coming back from TJ is a much better prospect these days than it used to be, but the success rate still isn’t 100%. You can expect Fernandez to be less than 100% when he does came back, most likely with less control than he displayed prior to the surgery. Holding down the fort until Fernandez returns is fellow phenom Henderson Alvarez. An All-Star selection last year and the owner of a stellar 2.65 ERA in 2014, Alvarez is pegged for some regression to the mean in 2015 due his lack of strikeout ability, averaging under 6 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. He’s not even 25 yet, so expecting some growth or maturation from him isn’t unreasonable.

Backing up the youngsters in the rotation is a pair of older veterans with some question marks. Acquired from the Reds this offseason, Matt Latos has had some really great years in the recent past. 2014, though, raised some red flags. He dealt with some injuries and his velocity dropped noticeably from where he was only a year or two ago. The Marlins clearly believe that he has put the injury concerns in the rear view mirror and believe he is capable of the sub 4 ERAs Latos is accustomed to. Another offseason acquisition, former National Dan Haren now dons the brightly colored Marlins jersey, despite some overtures he would retire rather than join the team following his trade this winter. If you watched Dan Haren with the Nationals, you know what to expect out of him. He flashed some positive signs with the Dodgers last year, but you pretty much know what you are going to get out of him at this stage in his career.

In the bullpen, the Marlins have a reliable young closer in Steve Cishek. The side arm slinging Cishek appears to have conquered the platoon split bugaboos that bother most side arm pitchers (since their pitches have a lot of natural movement towards left handed hitters, side armers generally struggle against lefties) and is now a reliable arm at the back of the bullpen when the Marlins get to the late innings with a lead. The rest of the bullpen is pretty average, although bullpen seasons are so hard to predict that it could end up being a strength or a weakness for the team.

Player to Watch: I’m going to cheat again, but the player to watch for the Marlins is the pair of young outfielders not named Stanton. While Stanton has some injury history, when he is healthy and playing, you know exactly what you are going to get from him. The Marlins offense, though, only goes as far as Ozuna and Yelich can carry it. Stanton can hit all the home runs he wants, but if no one is on base before him or has the ability to drive him in from behind him in the lineup, it won’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. If the two other outfielders can sustain their previous success or, as is expected, improve on last year, the Marlins lineup will be a force to be reckoned with.

Best Case Scenario: The pitching rotation can keep the Marlins in games in the first half of the season and the young outfield along with Prado and Dee Gordon provide the offensive spark for the Marlins to hang with the Nationals in the NL East. Stanton shows no ill side effects from getting hit in the face. Fernandez comes back strong for the second half of the season. The Marlins give the Nationals a run for their money in the NL East and wind up with one of the two Wild Card spots.

Worst Case Scenario: Despite Stanton’s best efforts, he can’t provide enough power to make up for the holes in the rest of the roster. Latos and Haren finally succumb to father time and can’t make up for their loss of velocity. Yelich and Ozuna struggle at the plate, with Ozuna’s free swinging ways getting the better of him and Yelich’s ground ball tendencies limiting his power potential. Fernandez comes back but isn’t 100% and struggles with his control. Despite all that, the Marlins still feast on the Phillies and Braves enough to stay in the Wild Card race into the second half of the season, but fall well short of the playoffs in the end.

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