The Miami Marlins are about to begin the 2016 season and they will do so with fresh faces and renewed optimism in the dugout.
Six straight seasons have ended with a losing record for the Marlins, and the team has not seen a playoff game since 2003. It is a drought of success that few other teams have suffered in the same time frame. In fact, only the Seattle Mariners (14 years) have been absent from the postseason longer than the Marlins.
With a myriad of players, coaches and managers going through a seemingly revolving door in Miami, the Marlins approached this off-season with one important goal. That was to find a consistent identity. The Marlins wanted to bring in a leader who could transform their locker room into not only a winning one, but a reputable and dependable one.
The man who ended up getting the job to lead the Marlins into this next chapter was none other than Don Mattingly. The legendary Yankees first baseman and successful Dodgers manager was tabbed by owner Jeffrey Loria to take the Marlins into the next level. Mattingly is known not only for his talent on the field, but his level-headed and respected approach on the bench.
A manager however can only do so much and Mattingly knows this as well as anyone. This is why a solid coaching staff around the skipper is equally as important, and on paper Miami may just have that. The Marlins hired Barry Bonds as their hitting coach, giving the All-Time home run leader his first full-time big league coaching job. It will be a new experience for Bonds, but one that could pay huge dividends for Miami's young roster.
The most important pupil that Bonds will work with is arguably Giancarlo Stanton. While the slugger is immensely talented on his own accord, he can learn something that nobody in history knows better than Bonds. The former San Francisco Giants All-Star was pitched around on a daily basis and led all of baseball in free passes while he moved up the HR charts.
Stanton is going to face a similar challenge with Miami and this was evident even during spring training. In one spring contest, Stanton was walked three times in a game including once intentionally. To his credit, Stanton laid off bad pitches and took a great approach. This situation has been a problem for the slugger in the past though, and Bonds could iron that out for the long haul. Stanton at times in past seasons would become visibly frustrated which led to poor at-bats.
Bonds will also be able to help guys such as Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna who possess the ability to hit the ball for power. Ozuna is coming off a down year and if he can turn his numbers back around, it could make all the difference for Miami. Ozuna could also serve as protection for Stanton potentially in future lineup configurations.
While Miami's offense is looking to make strides this year, so too is its pitching staff. 2015 featured a laundry list of names that went in and promptly out of the rotation for the Marlins. It was tough for Miami to find a dependable arm to take the ball every five days and it was an issue that pretty much lasted all season long.
Unlike 2015, Miami will begin the year with its ace Jose Fernandez on the roster. While Fernandez does have an innings limit, the team is trying to pace his starts where it will not have much of an effect. The plan is for Fernandez to be given an extra day of rest here and there which will eliminate several starts during the course of the season. With this method, the right-hander should be available for a potential playoff series in October.
Fernandez will not pitch on Opening Night as a way to get him into the right schedule for his off-days later in the year. Due to the way that the Miami's schedule is designed in April, having Fernandez pitch on the second night makes a world of difference. While starting on Opening Night is considered an honor, the pros outweighed the cons for Miami in this situation.
Taking the ball for the season opening game will be Wei-Yin Chen who joined Miami in the off-season on a five-year deal. Chen brings multiple things to Miami's rotation that were missing in 2015. Not only is he a veteran dependable arm, but Chen is also a lefty. Miami plays in a division with several tough left-handed bats, and lacked a good answer at times for those hitters.
Lining up behind Chen and Fernandez will be Adam Conley, Tom Koehler and Jarred Cosart. Conley and Cosart won their jobs during spring training in an intense battle with several other pitchers. For Conley, this represents the first time that he will begin a season on a big league roster. The young lefty spent time with Miami in 2015 and had some brief success. Conley posted excellent numbers all spring long, and the Marlins are hopeful he can carry that into the games that count.
Even if Miami's starting staff produces, it will be up to the bullpen to maintain those leads on most days. It is rare to see a pitcher go the distance in this day and age and middle relievers have become integral parts of each roster. Miami has a new-look pen with names such as Dustin McGowan, Edwin Jackson and Craig Breslow. The Marlins will rely on these veterans along with the returning David Phelps, A.J. Ramos and Mike Dunn. Ramos will enter 2016 as Miami's closer once again.
Miami will also need help from its bench and at the same time could find history there. Ichiro Suzuki enters 2016 only 65 hits shy of 3,000 for his MLB career. It is conceivable that Suzuki could reach the historic number, though it likely would mean that one of Miami's outfielders misses playing time. Simply pinch-hitting and spot-starting could not elicit enough enough at-bats for Suzuki in 2016.
Should Suzuki reach 3,000 hits, he would become the first to do ever so in a Marlins uniform. Most of Suzuki's hits came while with the Mariners, but he did have 91 as a Marlin last season. The future Hall of Famer served as a leader for a young team in 2015 and is expected to do so again. Suzuki should fill in for all three of Miami's outfielders, and will likely be Miami's first option off the bench on most days.
The Marlins may have an issue that pops up during the year depending on the health of their main roster. Miami has one of the lowest payrolls in baseball and also one of the weakest farm systems. This combination has resulted in a lack of depth at the AAA and AA levels. Miami could find itself in a tough spot if it loses players on the big league roster for significant time. While injuries are something all teams deal with, many have proper depth to off-set those situations.
Miami will not have the easiest schedules in April as it looks to start strong. Among the games scheduled in the first month is a series in Los Angeles against Mattingly's former team. The Marlins and Dodgers will play a four-game series which is sandwiched between stops in San Francisco and Milwaukee. Its an early ten-game road trip that could test the Marlins.
The Marlins also have several games against their division rivals in April with series against the New York Mets, Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves. These games will give the Marlins the opportunity to make a statement early in the divisional race, but they could also put the team in a precarious position quickly.
During the course of the year, the Marlins will find themselves in some new environments as well. In May, the Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates will be playing a two-game series in Puerto Rico. The series will honor Roberto Clemente and Miami will serve as the home team for both games.
The Braves and Marlins will also play on a neutral field when they take the field at Fort Bragg on July 3. The game will honor the military with Atlanta serving as the home team.
Through the tough early schedule and the adventurous middle portion, Miami will be trying to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot. Miami's final month of the season should give the team the chance to accomplish that goal if it remains in contention. This is due to the fact that the Marlins will play the Nationals and Mets a combined nine times over the final two weeks. These two clubs are expected to battle for the division title, and Miami should control its own destiny if it can stay close.
The Marlins and Tigers will get the 2016 season started on Tuesday at Marlins Park at 7:10 p.m. Former Cy Young winner, Justin Verlander will face Chen as he will the ball for Detroit to start.