The Miami Marlins endured an emotional ending to 2016, but have renewed optimism as they head into the 2017 season.
With just a handful of games left in the schedule, the Marlins were dealt a terrible blow. Their ace and one of the premiere pitchers in the game, Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident. It was September 25 and it was not only tragic in terms of baseball performance, but the players in the Miami dugout lost a friend at the same time.
Fernandez brought optimism to every game he pitched, he played every out like it was game seven of the World Series. The fiery right-hander treated at-bats, unlike any other pitcher in the game today. Even on games he didn't play in, Fernandez kept the dugout excited and was a youthful presence in a game that often can become mundane.
Replacing Fernandez is impossible and Miami did not even try that approach in the off-season. His energy, charisma and talent are a mixture that is not seen elsewhere. The Marlins had to move on though and find some way to patch the roster together for 2017. The front office took an approach not seen in baseball and decided to stack a pitching staff full of starters. Miami will roll out a five-man rotation, but it will also stock the bullpen with a few starters.
Edinson Volquez was signed in the off-season to join Miami's rotation, but he will also lead it. Volquez will be handed the ball on Opening Day and will be asked to set the tone for the season. The right-hander brings a ton of experience with him and is a champion. Volquez has had some downs mixed in with the ups, but he could be a perfect fit for the Miami rotation.
Also joining the rotation this off-season was Dan Straily. The Marlins traded from their thin farm system to bring Straily in and it was not due to his famous beard. Straily will be allowed to keep that look under Miami's facial hair rules, but more importantly he will bring some winning baseball with him. In 2015 Straily amassed a 3.76 E.R.A, despite spending a lot of time in hitter friendly Great American Ball Park with the Cincinnati Reds.
There are some holdovers in rotation with Tom Koehler and Wei-Yin Chen settled into the third and fourth slots. Both have the ability to dominate, but also stumble at times. Chen's contract and lack of relief experience, will likely keep in the rotation for the long haul. Koehler however could end up shifted to one of the long-relief roles during 2017, depending on performance issues. Adam Conley is expected to begin the season as Miami's fifth starter, after some success in 2016.
The Marlins spent a lot of time tweaking the bullpen and tried to land even more pieces along the way. Junichi Tazawa and Brad Ziegler joined an already talented group. Miami also swung and missed on attempts to sign Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman. A.J. Ramos will remain Miami's closer to begin the season, but he has plenty of guys ready to step in if needed. Tazawa, Ziegler and Kyle Barraclough could also see some save opportunities.
In terms of long relief, Miami has David Phelps, Dustin McGowan and Jose Urena. All three have starting experience and should be able to handle Miami's new pitching set-up. Jeff Locke is also waiting in the wings for a chance in the rotation or bullpen, once he recovers from an injury to his biceps. Miami could also give some time to Justin Nicolino out of the rotation or bullpen.
Miami's lineup resembles the one it trotted out for 2016, but there is one important difference to start the year. Martin Prado will miss the beginning of the season, due to a hamstring injury. Prado could potentially be out for a good portion of April and this means the Marlins will need to turn to subs at third base. Derek Dietrich and Miguel Rojas are the likely choices for playing time at the hot corner, but neither will likely be able to replace Prado's leadership. Prado who signed a new deal with Miami in the off-season, serves as the unofficial captain of the Marlins.
As is the case every season, Giancarlo Stanton will be critical to Miami's success. Stanton's health has been an issue during his career and the Marlins will need his bat in the lineup daily, if they hope to reach the playoffs. Stanton not only produces on his own, but he improves those around him when he's succeeding.
One of the players who benefits from a healthy and productive Stanton, is left-fielder Marcell Ozuna. The 26-year old will slide over from center-field this season and will remain one of Miami's biggest bats at the same time. Ozuna enjoyed a fine spring, with great power numbers. Whether Ozuna can translate that Grapefruit League success, into regular season production remains to be seen. Ozuna will likely hit in the middle of Miami's lineup and should have plenty of opportunities to knock in runs.
Dee Gordon will be asked to set the table early and often for Miami this season. After missing 80 games due to a suspension last season, Gordon will be atop the Miami lineup on a daily basis. With his ability to get on base and move himself via steals, Gordon is one of the most important players on the Marlins. Besides his offensive ability, Gordon is also a slick fielding second baseman. Whether Gordon produces a run or saves a run, he can be a difference maker for the Marlins in every game.
Justin Bour will begin the season as Miami's everyday first baseman. The plan is for Bour to start even against left-handed pitching, unlike previous seasons. If Bour can have moderate success against southpaws, Miami could have one of the biggest bargains in baseball at first base. Bour is a threat with his power and has the ability to hit home runs in bunches. If Bour falters against lefties, Miami will likely go back to a platoon at 1B.
J.T. Realmuto is embracing a new role this season, in addition to his existing one. Miami's top catcher will be asked to play a little first base as well, when A.J. Ellis is behind the plate. Realmuto's bat is important to Miami's lineup, but his legs need days off from catching. By learning 1B in the spring, Realmuto has given Miami options and that is something every team looks for.
Ichiro Suzuki will begin his third season as Miami's fourth outfielder in 2017. Ichiro has been a quiet leader on the bench and a flashy producer on the field. In 2016, Ichiro eclipsed the 3,000 hit mark and nearly hit .300. Ichiro did all this while he was 42 and now he enters 2017 as a 43-year old. While the age may typically point to a deterioration in baseball skills, Ichiro has remained one of Miami's most consistent and reliable players.
Don Mattingly will be at the top step of the Miami dugout for a second year and he remains one of the most respected skippers in the game. While Mattingly has made questionable in-game decisions at times, he has never stopped being a perfect father figure and leader to the young talented Miami squad. Mattingly's calm demeanor seemed to be a good fit for the roster in 2016 and there is every reason to believe that will be the case again in 2017.
Hovering over the head of everyone in the franchise, is the potential sale of the team. The Marlins are on the market and there is a chance this will be the final season under the control of owner Jeffrey Loria. The owner has been in charge of Miami since 2002, but is looking to move onto the next chapter in his life. In past years Loria has shown a willingness to add payroll at the trade deadline, if the team is competing. With an ownership change looming, it may prove challenging to make changes in-season.
Marlins Park will also hold a big event this year, the 2017 All-Star Game. In addition to the Home Run Derby and other All-Star festivities, the game of baseball will decend on Miami in July for nearly a week of fun. It is likely that Stanton will be a part of the HR Derby and he will be trying to defend his title from the 2016 contest.
The Marlins play plenty of home games in May and June, but April will be a busy travel month. In the first month of the season, Miami will play only nine games at home and 15 on the road. Setting the tone for the season is important and a winning month in April could go a long way for the Marlins.
If Miami can stay in contention, September may offer a chance for the team to get over the hump. The Marlins will play he Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves a combined 14 times over the final month. Neither squad is expected to compete for the playoffs this season and those games could be very important to the Marlins.
Miami's 2017 regular season will begin on April 3rd against the Washington nationals in Washington, D.C.