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2015 team preview: The Miami Marlins could compete for a playoff spot in 2015

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They will need a few breaks along the way, but the Marlins could surprise a lot of people this year.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, I spent roughly 2,000 words bagging on the Miami Marlins, calling them "a hot mess that would make Randy Smith proud." In my defense, there were several reasons why this claim made sense. The Marlins were coming off a 62-100 record in 2013 and their biggest addition was catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Giancarlo Stanton couldn't stay healthy and they were relying on a lot of young, untested talent. Finally, they were the Marlins.

I say "were" because it seems this organization has turned over a new leaf. A lot of things went right in 2014 -- Stanton stayed healthy and the young, untested talent played pretty well -- and the Marlins quietly improved their win total by 15 games. The Marlins went gangbusters this offseason, signing Stanton to a $325 million extension and trading their own prospects for proven big league talent. Sure, the Stanton extension has Jeffrey Loria's fingerprints all over it, but it seems that the Marlins are trying to be as un-Marlin-y as possible in 2015.

Manager: Mike Redmond (3rd season)
2014 record: 77-85
SB Nation blog: Fish Stripes

Lineup

Giancarlo Stanton's massive contract extension was the talk of the baseball offseason, but you have to wonder if he would have gotten more money had he walked away with the National League MVP award. It's not as ludicrous as it sounds; Stanton finished second and was worth 6.1 WAR, but missed the last few weeks of the season after getting hit in the face by a Mike Fiers fastball. Joining Stanton are Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, a pair of youngsters that were worth a combined 8.0 WAR in their first full seasons of big league action. Yelich, the left fielder, is drawing all sorts of comparisons to Alex Gordon after hitting .284/.362/.402. However, it's worth noting that Yelich already has a Gold Glove to his name at an age when Gordon was still in Double A. Ozuna, the center fielder, belted 23 home runs last year. He's not quite as smooth in the field, but Ozuna's offensive numbers are similar to those of a young Adam Jones. Ichiro Suzuki is the team's fourth outfielder, which sounds exciting until you realize he had a .314 on-base percentage in a Yankees uniform.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia was a disappointment both at and behind the plate last year. The Marlins' 21-million-dollar man hit just .220/.320/.362 in 435 plate appearances. His 89 OPS+ was his worst mark since 2009, and he struck out 32.9 percent of the time. Perhaps even more detrimental to his team's success was the fact that he was by far the worst pitch framer in baseball. Salty still has two more years left on his contract, and backup Jeff Mathis isn't taking his job anytime soon (though he's a much better receiver). There is hope for the future, though. Prospect J.T. Realmuto is coming off a breakout season in Double A, hitting .299/.369/.461 and throwing out 39 percent of baserunners.

Miami has power and pitching depth, two things that other teams have been killing themselves to acquire all winter.

The Marlins are once again relying on a pair of veteran corner infielders, but these veteran corner infielders are much better than their 2014 counterparts. Martin Prado had another Prado-esque season, hitting .282/.321/.412 with 12 home runs and 58 RBI for the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankees. The Yankees moved Prado all around the diamond defensively, but he should spend most of his time at third base in Miami. Michael Morse will finally be used primarily as a first baseman, a role he hasn't filled since he was worth 3.1 WAR for the Washington Nationals in 2011. A career .808 OPS is better than you think in today's offensive environment, and Morse should see plenty to hit if slotted behind Stanton in the batting order.

Depending on your opinion of shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria's defensive skills -- neither scouts nor advanced metrics really know what to make of him -- the Marlins could have one of the better double play tandems in baseball. Hechavarria has a penchant for the spectacular, but Inside Edge thinks that he struggles with simpler plays. He's nothing great offensively, but is still valuable if you believe in the glove. Fangraphs doesn't (he was worth 0.6 of their WAR last year), but Baseball Prospectus pegged him as a three win player thanks to more forgiving defensive metrics. Second baseman Dee Gordon had a breakout season for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014, but a tiny walk rate limits how effective he could be as a potential leadoff hitter, something the Marlins plan on doing in 2015. Still, he stole 64 bases and was worth 3.1 WAR last season.

Rotation

The baseball world was without Jose Fernandez for most of the 2014 season after the young superstar underwent Tommy John surgery in May. While the rest of the NL East may have breathed a sigh of relief, the rest of us mourned the loss of Fernandez and his 2.19 ERA and 3.22 strikeout-to-walk ratio from 2013. The good news? Fernandez is already throwing off of a mound and expects to return at the beginning of June. Until then, 24-year-old Henderson Alvarez will be among those asked to shoulder the load. Alvarez made the NL All-Star team and tossed 187 innings, one out shy of his career high with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2012. His 3.36 strikeout-to-walk ratio was actually a career high and he led the National League with three shutouts.

The Dan Haren soap opera was an interesting subplot to the Marlins' offseason, but fans should not expect the Haren that they remember. He hasn't had an above average ERA since 2011 and was awful for a large chunk of 2014. However, he did finish the year with a 2.43 ERA and 6.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final 10 starts, and there are worse home ballparks for a fly ball pitcher to take up shop. Plus, thanks to the Dodgers' deep pockets and need to clean house, he's free. Right-hander Mat Latos had a bone to pick with the Cincinnati Reds after they traded him to Miami in December, but the 27-year-old could be a valuable pick up even if he keeps running his mouth. Latos gritted through a couple of injuries to allow a 3.25 ERA in 102 1/3 innings last year. His peripherals weren't quite as perky as the previous four seasons, but he should be a fair bet to bounce back to the workhorse he was from 2010 to 2013.

It seems that the Marlins are trying to be as un-Marlin-y as possible in 2015.

Jarred Cosart is the prototypical Marlins pitcher. He throws hard, pounds the strike zone, and generates lots of ground balls; in essence, he's what Jacob Turner was supposed to be. Cosart pitched well in 10 starts for the Marlins after coming over in a midseason trade with the Astros, allowing a 2.39 ERA and 3.22 FIP in 64 innings. However, he continued to not strike anyone out, and his .267 BABIP and 77.9 percent strand rate are signs of regression. He's still only 24, though. Right-hander Tom Koehler is the frontrunner for the fifth starter spot until Fernandez returns, but the Marlins could do a lot worse. Koehler has a 93-94 mile per hour fastball and was second on the team with 191 1/3 innings pitched last year. That many innings with a league average ERA is a valuable asset, something that few other teams have sitting at the back of their rotation.

Once again, the Marlins had an above average bullpen despite employing zero players you have heard of before. Closer Steve Cishek is the closest thing to a household name in this unit, but he still has yet to make an All-Star appearance despite converting 91 of 101 career save opportunities. He upped his strikeout rate last year but also allowed more hits, resulting in the highest ERA of his career, at 3.17. Setup man Mike Dunn also struck out more batters than the year prior, but his WHIP and FIP went largely unchanged. He thinks this Marlins team could turn some heads in 2015. Right-hander A.J. Ramos is basically Al Alburquerque without the Instagram account. Veterans David Phelps, Bryan Morris, and Aaron Crow are newish additions (Morris was acquired at the trade deadline last year) that should help bolster depth.

Down on the farm

The Marlins have one of the worst farm systems in baseball, but not for the same reasons that the Tigers do. The Marlins recently graduated top talents such as Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, and have traded others like Jake Marisnick and Andrew Heaney in return for big league talent. It's hard to fault the process, but there is little help on the way if some of their young talent doesn't pan out. Right-handed pitcher Tyler Kolek, the #2 overall pick in last year's draft, is the lone jewel in a system almost entirely devoid of position player talent. Catcher J.T. Realmuto is the only exception to that claim, and his development should mesh nicely with Jarrod Saltalamacchia's contract, which expires in two years. Pitcher Jose Urena and Justin Nicolino impressed the Marlins brass at Double A last season.

Player to watch: Henderson Alvarez

Alvarez wasn't the Marlins' best pitcher last season -- Nathan Eovaldi and his 3.0 WAR are in New York now -- but his performance may be the make-or-break pivot point of the Marlins' 2015 season. Alvarez continued to pound the lower half of the strike zone and induce tons of ground balls last year, resulting in a 2.65 ERA and All-Star honors. His 3.58 FIP and 14.4 percent strikeout rate weren't quite so sexy, but he only walked 4.3 percent of batters faced and pitched 187 innings.

The big difference between 2014 Alvarez and the one from years past was his improvement against left-handed hitters. This has been an ongoing trend over the past couple seasons, and it largely stems from tweaks he made to his changeup late in 2012. In 2015, Alvarez will be counted on to keep the rotation afloat until Jose Fernandez returns from Tommy John surgery. If he can repeat his 2014 numbers, the Marlins should be in good shape once their young ace gets back on the mound.

Outlook

The Marlins are a flawed team, but there seem to be more of those around baseball than ever before. The three division frontrunners -- Washington, St. Louis, and Los Angeles -- are obvious, but the wild card teams could come from anywhere. Miami has power and pitching depth, two things that other teams have been killing themselves to acquire all winter. However, there's a lot of volatility on this roster, and their superstar has struggled to stay healthy. If Stanton plays all year and Fernandez shows no signs of rust, they could make the playoffs. If either of them falter, it will take a monumental effort from the supporting cast to get in.