2014 Team Preview: The Miami Marlins have nowhere to go but up

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Marlins were not a good baseball team last year, and thing might not be much better in 2014. However, this team has potential beyond this season if owner Jeffrey Loria can stay out of the way.

It wasn't long ago that the Tigers felt like this. The Miami Marlins are now a decade removed from their last championship and things are trending downward in a hurry. Since finishing 87-75 in 2009, the Marlins have posted four consecutive losing seasons, bottoming out with a 62-100 record last year. While a robust farm system has diehard fans hopeful, their only offensive star is supposedly counting down the days until he can skip town. Add in the fact that president Larry Beinfest -- architect of both the 2003 championship squad and that 2009 team -- was fired this offseason, and you're left with a hot mess that would make Randy Smith proud.

Manager: Mike Redmond (2nd year)

2013 record: 62-100, 5th in NL East

SB Nation blog: Fish Stripes

Other Marlins coverage: Miami Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Marlin Maniac

Lineup

Among the usual Marlins grab bag of short-term veteran contracts and non-roster invites, the Marlins quietly signed catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia to a three year, $21 million contract during the GM winter meetings. Saltalamacchia was worth 7.1 WAR in three years with the Red Sox. He appeared to focus more on finding gaps than hitting homers in 2013 -- his ISO dropped but he hit a career-high 40 doubles -- an approach that will serve him well in the cavernous confines of Marlins Park. Former Tigers farmhand Rob Brantly could be in the mix to backup Saltalamacchia, but with his .528 OPS and Jeff Mathis serving as Jose Fernandez's personal catcher in 2013, Brantly will likely be in the minors again. With J.T. Realmuto breathing down his neck, Brantly's days with the Marlins could be numbered.

If this were any other franchise in the majors, pundits would look at this system and say why they are a year or two away from making some serious noise.

Speaking of that usual grab bag of short-term contracts, the Marlins struck again when they signed Garrett Jones, Jeff Baker, Rafael Furcal, and Casey McGehee to comprise 75% of their 2014 infield. Only shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria -- a lighter-hitting version of Jose Iglesias, if that's possible -- will retain his starting spot from last year. Scouts love Hechavarria's glove, but defensive metrics were not so kind in 2013.

Alongside Hechavarria on the left side of the infield will be McGehee, who hit .292/.376/.515 with 28 home runs and 93 RBI for the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Japanese Pacific League last year. His .643 OPS in the majors in 2012 is probably a better predictor of things to come. Baker and Jones will comprise a first base platoon that won't be as good as it seems on paper, while Furcal will try to hold off Father Time once again. He has not appeared in the big leagues since 2012 thanks to Tommy John surgery. If and when Furcal falters, Donovan Solano will take his place.

Compared to the infield, the Marlins' outfield is in excellent shape (though, given the state of the infield, that isn't saying much). Giancarlo Stanton will be in right field any time he's 80% healthy or better, with the other two outfield slots left up to a trio of raw-but-talented prospects. Jake Marisnick put up big offensive numbers in Double-A last season before a July call-up, but a .478 OPS and late-season meniscus injury will probably land him in the minors to start the year. Marcell Ozuna, the oldest of the bunch at 23 years old, held his own with a .265 batting average. Defensively, he has range -- +9.6 UZR in just over 600 defensive innings -- and a cannon for an arm. Christian Yelich has drawn the most attention from prospect hounds, mostly for his bat. He hit .288 with a .370 on-base percentage in 273 plate appearances last year. He is also capable of making terrifying faces in the field, which has to count for something.

Speaking of Stanton, it remains to be seen whether teams will actually pitch to him in 2014. No one saw any reason to in 2013, resulting in a whopping 14.7% walk rate. His plate discipline didn't suffer, but his numbers did thanks to another year of numerous injuries, including a hamstring strain that shelved him for six weeks. His batting average, slugging percentage, and ISO were all the worst of his career. If he can stay healthy -- no small feat for a guy with this injury history and only one season with 125 games played -- then the power should return.

Rotation

This is how Jeremy Bonderman was supposed to turn out. Jose Fernandez debuted in an early April start as a 20 year old after just a handful of minor league innings, none of which came above Advanced-A ball. He got off to a slow start, but a 10-3 record and 1.50 ERA after June 1st earned him an All-Star appearance, the NL Rookie of the Year award, and a third-place finish in the Cy Young voting. It was largely because of Fernandez that the Marlins' rotation ranked in the middle of the pack in the National League in most categories. None of the other 11 pitchers that started a game for the Fish in 2013 amassed 2.0 WAR, and only one -- flamethrower Nathan Eovaldi -- had a sub-3.50 ERA.

Speaking of the also-rans in the rotation, Eovaldi, Jacob Turner, and newly minted no-no artist Henderson Alvarez will likely slot behind Fernandez. Eovaldi had the highest average fastball velocity among starters in the National League last year, but his lack of secondary pitches lets opposing hitters sit on the heater. Alvarez continued to churn out ground balls at a 50% clip in 2013, but his numbers were aided by a minuscule home run rate. He doesn't strike anyone out, but he doesn't walk anyone either. Likely fourth starter Jacob Turner wishes he had Alvarez's home run rate. He allowed a 1.76 ERA in his first six starts last year, but ended the year with a 1-8 record and 4.79 ERA in his last 14 appearances.

While Turner's job is safe, the fifth starter spot seems to be up for grabs during the spring. Righty Tom Koehler would be a nice swingman or long reliever on a contending team, but in Miami he was a borderline #3 starter in 2013 who doesn't strike anyone out. Lefty Brian Flynn -- the third player included in the Anibal Sanchez deal -- could also be in the rotation. He had four September starts in 2013, but they did not go very well. Former Tigers punching bag* Kevin Slowey is a non-roster invitee to Spring Training. This would not be particularly noteworthy, except he was in the same position last year and made the 25-man roster. He was just as Kevin Slowey-ey as ever before missing the last two months of the season with a forearm strain.

*Slowey has allowed a 5.74 ERA and .912 OPS against the Tigers in his career, yet sports a 5-1 record. Go figure.

The Marlins' bullpen was one of the bright spots of the 2013 season, posting league average (or better) numbers across the board. Their 3.26 FIP was tied for second in the National League and they ranked fifth with 467 strikeouts. Their top four relievers according to 2013 fWAR -- righties Steve Cishek and A.J. Ramos, and lefties Mike Dunn and Dan Jennings -- will be joined by Carter Capps and Carlos Marmol to form one of the more underrated units in the league. Capps, acquired from the Mariners for the seemingly uninterested Logan Morrison, struck out 66 batters in 59 innings last year. His command isn't great, but he throws hard and his 3.66 xFIP suggests that better days are ahead. Marmol has not been any good since 2010, but makes sense for the Marlins. If he can put together a solid first half, he's trade bait for a prospect or two at the deadline. There is also a chance that an individual named Arquimedes Caminero makes the major league roster. I'm rooting for him based on that name alone.

Going (going) back (back) to Cali (Cali)

Lloyd Christmas might like the Marlins' odds of retaining Giancarlo Stanton after he becomes a free agent in three years, but all signs point to the southern California native heading back home as soon as possible. The Los Angeles Dodgers will be rid of both Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier by that point, and their new owners have already shown that money is no object when it comes to bringing in talent. Stanton is saying all the right things in the media, but his language -- namely, stating that he wants to see the team moving in the "right direction" -- suggests that he's only open to an extension if the Marlins are serious title contenders. Even then, I don't know if that will be enough.

Player to watch: Jose Fernandez

You probably didn't get a chance to see Fernandez pitch in 2013, which is a shame. The Marlins were never on TV because they were awful, and FOX spent Fernandez's lone inning in the All-Star Game interviewing someone that nobody cares about. The NL Rookie of the Year had a whale of a season last year, winning 12 games with a 2.19 ERA and posting the best WAR total by a 20 year old since Doc Gooden. The best part? Fernandez's peripherals all look solid. His homer rate was respectable, his line drive rate was 21%, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was about what you would expect from the swing-happy NL East. The ERA might climb, but there's no reason to expect serious regression from Fernandez in 2014.

And if you're still partial to Stanton's prodigious power, Jose can hang.

Fernandez_homer_9-11-13_medium

Outlook

If this were any other franchise in the majors, pundits would look at this system and say why they are a year or two away from making some serious noise -- and a few mistaken souls are still doing so. Unfortunately, these are the Marlins and all we are focused on is how much longer Giancarlo Stanton will toil in the Technicolor Mausoleum of Doom. Sure, Jose Fernandez is fun to watch, but so was Roy Halladay 10 years ago, and he never sniffed the playoffs until he went to Philadelphia. The bullpen is decent, but the rotation outside of Fernandez is awful and the infield is more heinous than that home run sculpture in left-center. Despite all of that, the most depressing part is that this is a team that could be fun to watch as the season goes on -- they will surely be better in September than in April -- but with Jeffrey Loria around there's no telling when it will be torn to bits in order to pocket more revenue sharing dollars.

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