The Miami Marlins are about to embark on a journey that they hope ends in a third World Series championship for the franchise.
After a much-improved season last year, optimism is running high in Miami's locker room and for good reason. The team has kept the core together and has added several necessary pieces. On paper, the Marlins are a contender for the first time in years.
The 2013 Marlins lost 100 games and that may turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to the franchise. The losing season gave Miami a chance to give some young players major league experience. It also showed the organization what it needed to improve.
2014 proved that process worked when Miami improved by 15 games. The team stayed in the hunt for a Wild-Card spot into September. When Giancarlo Stanton fell victim to a fastball, his season ended. For all intents and purposes, the Marlins season also came to an end that day. The team was unable to make up for the loss of their star.
With the experience of a roster without Stanton fresh in their minds, the Marlins made sure to retain their slugger. Stanton and the Marlins agreed to a record $325 million contract that will keep him in Miami for 13 years. It was the single biggest contract in North American sports history.
The Marlins were not done there though as they went out and made trades for the likes of Dee Gordon, Dan Haren, Martin Prado, Mat Latos and David Phelps. All of these players figure to factor into Miami's plans in a big way.
Miami was also active in the free-agent market with the additions of Ichiro Suzuki and Michael Morse. Suzuki will serve as depth in the outfield and also as a veteran presence off the bench. Morse will be Miami's everyday first baseman and will also protect Stanton in the lineup.
Recently, the Marlins also signed Christian Yelich to a long-term deal. Yelich has become one of the best hitting outfielders in the game and also flashed solid defense in 2014. His defense was even recognized with a Gold Glove award last year.
The Marlins will send out a formidable rotation this season but it pales in comparison to the division rival Washington Nationals. Miami will have Henderson Alvarez, Haren, Latos, Jarred Cosart and Tom Koehler in no particular order. Its a rotation with question marks and injury risk. Even though its not perfect, Miami's rotation is stronger than recent years and should keep it in most games.
When considering Miami's rotation, it is important to remember that the team will be adding quite possibly the biggest piece in all of baseball near mid-season. The hope is that Jose Fernandez will be ready to take the ball in June after recovering from Tommy John surgery. Fernandez would give the Marlins a huge boost in the second half if he is anything like the pitcher he was prior to his injury.
In the bullpen, Steve Cishek is set to enter another year as Miami's closer. Cishek has been one of the more dependable closers in the game and was the subject of trade rumors this off-season. Miami opted to keep its closer as it expects to hand him the ball many times in save situations this year.
In front of Cishek, the Marlins have Mike Dunn and A.J. Ramos returning in set-up roles. Both guys offer the ability to blow hitters away with electric fastballs. Both men also have plenty of experience in critical game-deciding situations. Dunn and Ramos could even see save opportunities on days that Cishek needs off.
Also in the bullpen will be Brad Hand, Phelps, Bryan Morris and Sam Dyson. Hand made the team mostly due to a lack of minor-league options. If the Marlins had given the roster spot to another player, they would have likely lost Hand on waivers. The veteran gives Miami a much-needed second left-handed option in the pen as well. Morris and Dyson were dependable for the most part in 2014 and should resume the same roles. Phelps will serve as a long reliever and possible swing-man for Miami.
The lineup had a good mixture of speed and power that could result in several thrilling innings this season. Gordon at the top of the everyday lineup should electrify the base paths. The second baseman stole more bases himself (64) in 2014 than the Marlins did as a team (58).
With Gordon and Yelich batting in front of him and setting the table, Stanton in the three-hole will see plenty of run-scoring opportunities. After bringing in a career-high 105 runs in 2014, Stanton could exceed that number this year. Not only should there be more runners on base for him, but pitchers will be more likely to pitch to the slugger. The extra chances for Stanton to see hittable pitches should come courtesy of Morse.
When the Marlins brought Morse in, they helped themselves in multiple areas. For one, they found an everyday first baseman who has a history of prolific power numbers. Equally as important, Miami added a bat behind Stanton that opposing pitchers will fear. Putting Stanton on to face Morse is not going to be an easy decision for managers. While Stanton is more feared, Morse does enough that skippers will want to avoid giving him run-scoring chances.
Next in line for Miami will be Prado who gives the Marlins a dependable every day third baseman. Casey McGehee was a terrific asset for Miami in the first half of 2014 but he tailed off after the All-Star break. With McGehee's lack of production over that long of a stretch, the Marlins decided to make a change at the hot corner. Prado is a player that is consistent and productive while also being versatile. Its possible that he and Marcell Ozuna will swap ;lineup spots during the course of the season.
The lineup stays strong behind Prado with Ozuna standing in line next. Ozuna is coming off a torrid 2014 season and could get even better. The league is quickly taking notice of Ozuna's talent both offensively and defensively. If the center fielder can be anything like the player he was last year, Miami will have one of the strongest middle of the lineups in baseball.
At the bottom of the order, Miami will have Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Adeiny Hechavarria. "Salty" as he is known had a relatively tough season his first go-around with the Marlins. Expectations were high for Saltalamacchia after signing a three-year deal. Its possible that with a year under his belt in the National League, Saltalamacchia will have a bigger and better year for Miami. If he does not, the Marlins could start to give Jeff Mathis more at-bats.
Hechavarria had an eye-opening 2014 season with the bat. The shortstop hit better than many came to expect and gave some hope that he could provide Miami with more than just flashy defense. The shortstop is still young and still developing, this season could be a continuation of the breakout he started last year. The Marlins would be given a big boost if they receive anything extra from the eight-spot in the order.
With expectations higher and analysts predicting a contending season for Miami, fan interest is also up. There should be an increase in attendance as well as television viewership this year. Marlins fans in Florida kept a close eye on the busy off-season and had a lot to say to NBC 6 South Florida.
"For the first time in many years as a Marlins fan, I'm beyond excited for the season." The off-season was great with the two extensions - Stanton and Yelich - and with the acquisitions of Gordon, Haren and Latos, this team has positioned itself to contend until the return of their ace - Jose Fernandez from surgery. Only thing that was missing this off-season was an extension for Fernandez, but time will tell," Roman Garcia said.
"While the Stanton signing was an unprecedented move, it wasn't as big as it gets in terms of importance. The way they structured it was the key for both Stanton & the franchise, short & long term. I don't think it was the best move of the off-season though. And I think the Dee and Prado moves were great too. However, the best (sleeper) moves the Fish made were bringing back arguably the best pinch hitter in the history of the game as assistant hitting coach- Lenny Harris, and the recent long-term signing of Yelich. Lenny will bring the added boost to last season's improved team BA not to mention a wealth of knowledge for the hitters, especially Yelich and Dee. Yelich, in my opinion, is a superstar in the making, and a future candidate for the Face of MLB. He just needs a couple more seasons of ripening. He's already a Gold Glove winner and I predict he'll add a few batting titles to his resume before his stint with the Marlins is over. Moreover, the franchise's continued stability (on the field and off) are HUGE if this team is going to make it to the next level. Not only do the players and coaching staff need it, but the employees and fans need it too. They accomplished that this off-season: stability!," said Orestes Hernandez.
"I think the Marlins had a very strong off-season, most capped off by the signing of Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich to long term deals," Jose Torres added.
"Overall best move is Gordon and signing Yelich. The most important [thing] they did [in] the off-season was trading their prospects as it showed the couldn't get the job done with the amount of chances they got from Flynn, Heaney and DeSclafani. As all 3 are suspects not prospects. The bullpen is the same which is did it's job, with Dunn with 10 wins and Cishek with 30 saves. along with the 1-2 punch with Morris / Ramos. The outfield I like signing Yelich long term and by mid year should be Ozuna hopefully he needs to prove he can play healthy all year. with Stanton It is a bargain with the contract in terms of the 6 years 105 mil guaranteed before he can opt out," added Jesus Padilla.
"There's much more excitement surrounding the team this year than the last couple of years. I'd say it's even more than in 2012. The Marlins are in a good place right now as far as growing the fan base is concerned, and hopefully will be able to take advantage of it," Michael Theed said.
"I really enjoyed the off-season there hasn't been this much hype since 2012 but this time they did it the right way. The most important move besides the Stanton move was getting a solid bat like Prado. You know what kind of player you are getting and he adds a lot to the clubhouse. Slotting him behind Morse is gonna help a lot he is also very versatile. I wish the Marlins would have added another starting pitcher. The Mets and Nats are strong in that area and I think that is the one area lacking until Jose gets back," said Kenneth Crespo.
The interest in the 2015 season even extends outside of Florida. North American as well as global baseball fans also were passionate with their thoughts on the Marlins off-season.
"I think the Marlins had an exciting, but perhaps overly ambitious off-season. The acquisitions made were mostly solid, but a lot was given up in terms of prospects and future holdings. The signings of Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich were by far the best moves in a very action packed few months. Some of the more under the radar players acquired may actually end up being the biggest contributors," Los Angeles-based Marlins fan David Marcillo said.
"In past years, the only baseball merchandise I would see here would be the Yankees, Red Sox or teams like that. Since Stanton signed, I see that colorful Marlins logo more and more," said Leslie Munn from Germany.
"I think the most important move was locking up Stanton long-term. That really set the tone for the entire off-season. This team really seems as well-equipped as any since 2012 to make a playoff run. Though we know how that turned out. Regardless, its the beginning of April and I'm happily sipping the Marlins kool-aid," said Kevin Carter who resides in Washington, D.C.
"It took a long time but maybe faith will be restored in a paranoid fan base. The Giancarlo contract could change everything," Puerto Rico resident Edith Santiago said.
"Everyone I talk to loves the Stanton/Yelich signings and is generally positive about the team. I definitely plan on going to more games this year. At least 3-4 at Citi and one at Yankees Stadium. I already have tickets to the Friday night game in the first Mets-Marlins series. Depending how things go may even go watch a game in Philly at some point," New Yorker Jesse Bryan added.
Even in an off-season filled with positives, certain fans remain unable to let go of a dislike for Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria however. The feelings towards Loria go back to fire sales of the team, most noticeably the tear down after the 2011 season.
"Marlins had a good off-season just for seemingly let the baseball people make baseball decision. Made some nice moves in an attempt to win now, but yet not totally sacrifice the long term prospects of the club. The most important thing the Marlins did this past winter was acting like a real MLB franchise in an industry awash with money. Instead of Loria sitting on his money, he actually allowed the team to spend money and compete for a playoff spot. The most outward sign of this fact was signing Stanton to a deal that he couldn't have turned down, yet was so club friendly it's almost criminal. In addition, signing Yelich to a nice club friendly deal helped reinforce this fact.. The only other thing they could have done is have Loria fully go away and just be a (bad) memory," Adam Rabel of San Antonio stated.
The long-time owner has shown a strong commitment to the franchise and made a massive monetary investment in the past few months. These contracts have a lot of guaranteed money which Loria is on the hook for regardless of attendance or performance. While some fans may remain skeptical, the owner has certainly taken steps in the right direction this off-season.
The team can show even more of a commitment at the trade deadline if pieces are needed to put it over the top. In 2003, the Marlins famously traded a top prospect in Adrian Gonzalez for reliever Ugueth Urbina. That move would prove to be a big reason the Marlins came away with the World Series championship.
A trade deadline move this time around could involve another top prospect such as Justin Nicolino. When July rolls around, the Marlins will undoubtedly have needs either due to injuries or performance, and will have major decisions to make.
Ultimately those trade deadline decisions could decide where this team ends up. Barring injuries or a drop in production from key players, the Marlins should be contending for the majority of the year. However, as Miami learned last season with Stanton, everything can change in the blink of an eye.
The Marlins will get the season started on Monday afternoon at 4:00 p.m. against the Atlanta Braves at Marlins Park.