The Miami Marlins begin their 21st season Monday on the road against the Washington Nationals, reigning NL East champions. For the first time in a few seasons, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has low expectations for his team, and for good reason: he traded away most of the team's best players during and after the end of the disastrous 2012 season.
Those Marlins finished 69-93 with a payroll of over $90 million, and the 2013 team could fare much the same, only with a payroll of around $39 million. If that seems small, the last time the Marlins executed a fire sale, they opened the next season (2006) with a $15 million payroll.
The only 2012 Opening Day starter who will take the field for the Marlins in Washington is slugger Giancarlo Stanton (Logan Morrison, still a Marlin, will start the season on the disabled list). Starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco is the only member of the 2012 rotation still with the team, and he appears to be a strong candidate for a midseason trade, as he his set to become a free agent at the end of the year.
The 2013 Marlins do feature a number of players whom Loria and president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest would like to serve as the team's core for years to come. Stanton, already one of the best hitters in baseball, is the most well-known. Morrison has received more notoriety for his Twitter account than his on-field play, but the team hopes he can improve his batting average and defense with a move to first base.
Top pitching prospect Jose Fernandez has been added to the Marlins' opening day roster thanks to injuries to pitchers Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez. Fernandez, the 14th overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft, has never pitched above single-A, but will make his major league debut on April 7 against the New York Mets. He was 14-1 with a 1.75 ERA in 25 games in the minor leagues last year.
Trades over the past year have helped the Marlins rebuild their minor league system (which was ranked near the bottom of MLB a year ago), though at the expense of the big club. Some of the prospects Miami gained will take the field in Washington, including catcher Rob Brantly (acquired from Detroit last July), Alvarez and shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria (acquired from Toronto in November), and Eovaldi (acquired from the Dodgers in July).
The hope is that these players will coalesce into a formidable core, the way Mike Lowell, Luis Castillo, Josh Beckett, and others did leading up to the 2003 World Series run. While that is possible in the long run, the short run could be ugly. Most experts predict the Marlins will lose at least 90 games, and challenging the franchise record of 108 losses (set in 1998) is a very real possibility.
Leading the team is first-time manager Mike Redmond, who played for the Marlins from 1998-2004. "When I retired, this was the goal — to get back in the big leagues," Redmond said last week. "The Marlins have given me a tremendous opportunity, and I'm going to go out there and give them everything I've got."
Whereas Loria has been quick to depose managers in the past (Redmond's predecessor, Ozzie Guillen, was fired after one season with the team), low expectations should give Redmond plenty of leeway to mold and develop a very young team.
But his goals are decidedly more ambitious than limiting the downside. "Nobody gives us a chance," Redmond said on the eve of the 2013 season. "So we're going to go out there and see if we can prove them wrong."