Last week, we began previewing the Yankees’ new rivals by necessity, the NL East, starting with the Phillies and the Braves. Now, we’ll move on to the Yankees’ feeblest new regional opponent, the Miami Marlins.
Derek Jeter’s team will test the idea that anything can happen in a short season. A 60-game sprint probably offers the Marlins their best shot at the playoffs in years. It’s still not a very good shot.
2019 Record: 57-105
2020 Playoff Odds: 2.8%, per FanGraphs
Manager: Don Mattingly
If it’s possible, the Marlins have almost quietly tanked over the past couple seasons. Perhaps overshadowed by the positively spectacular tank-jobs staged in Baltimore and Detroit, the Marlins have flown a bit under the radar. No matter, the Marlins managed to drop 105 games last year, after losing 98 in 2018.
That said, Miami looked ready to take a very modest step forward this year. Prior to the coronavirus shutdown, FanGraphs pegged the Marlins for a (relatively) respectable 67-win total. After another patented Marlins teardown, one that saw Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and JT Realmuto shipped out, inching toward merely below average represented some sort of progress.
The drivers of that gradual progress were twofold: the import of a few capable veterans, and the graduation of some young talent. The Marlins certainly didn’t shell out on the free-agent market this past winter, but they did at least make a passing glance at respectability by signing a handful of legitimate contributors. While the most talented prospects on the farm are still a ways off from the majors, at least a couple young performers appear ready to make an impact now.
Most notably, the Marlins brought in Jonathan Villar after the Orioles unceremoniously designated for assignment their best player. While not a plus defender, Villar can play a number of positions, and last season hit 24 homers, stole 40 bases, and hit .274/.339/.453. Villar will likely play across the diamond for Miami, and immediately profiles as one of their best players. The Marlins deserve credit for capitalizing on the Orioles’ largesse.
To shore up the outfield, the Marlins also signed Corey Dickerson. Despite consistently strong offensive numbers, Dickerson has failed to stick in one place, putting together a .293/.339/.499 and 121 OPS+ across the past three seasons for three different teams. On the dirt, the Marlins signed Jesus Aguilar to play first base, who struggled last year but smashed 35 homers with a 135 OPS+ to make the All-Star team in 2018.
Aguilar will join Brian Anderson on the infield, the Marlins’ most consistent player in recent years. Anderson’s progression into a dependable 3-WAR player is likely this Miami regime’s biggest player development win. Rounding out the infield are Miguel Rojas and Isan Diaz. Rojas fits as a dependable below-average starter. Diaz possesses a wider range of outcomes, as one of the prize prospects from the ill-fated Yelich trade. Diaz had an awful cup of coffee last year, but was a top-100 prospect two years ago. The Marlins will need the 24-year-old to take a step forward.
Diaz is part of the small cadre of young talent that Miami will depend on at the big-league level. Catcher Jorge Alfaro probably represents their best hope at production from a young cornerstone. Though already 27, Alfaro has four years of team control remaining, owns a career 97 OPS+ and rates as a positive defender.
The Marlins likely have less hope for young outfielders Lewis Brinson and Monte Harrison, the other two prospects acquired for Yelich. Brinson’s major-league experience is limited, but he’s rated as essentially the worst player in the game when in the bigs. Use caution before viewing his .183/.238/.293 career line. Harrison hasn’t made his debut yet, but he turns 25 next month and has failed to impress in the high minors the last two years. Projections subsequently peg him as a replacement-level player.
Turning to the rotation, the Marlins do have some interesting arms. Caleb Smith, acquired from the Yankees for Michael King, flashed last year, striking out 82 batters in 66 innings with a 3.41 ERA before a hip injury in June put him on the IL and appeared to hamper him after returning. Sandy Alcantara, the staff number-two, put together a strong all-around 2019 campaign, managing 197.1 innings with a 3.88 ERA, albeit with less impressive peripherals.
24-year-old right-hander Jordan Yamamoto also showed real promise last year, striking out 82 batters in 78.2 innings. Pablo Lopez and Jose Urena finish out the rotation. Both look like fungible back-end arms, having maintained ERA figures above five last season.
The Marlins don’t have too much to write home about in the bullpen, with steady veterans Brandon Kintzler and Ryne Stanek heading the group. They will likely have another former Yankee, Stephen Tarpley, among their bullpen arms.
In truth, though this Marlins team sports its least-bad roster in three years, Miami is clearly still looking toward the future. The franchise has several legitimately interesting talents at the top of their farm system, among them Sixto Sanchez, JJ Bleday, Jesus Sanchez and Jazz Chisholm.
If/when that core is ready to contribute, will Jeter and the rest of the Marlins executive suite actually spend to bring in supplementary talent? The answer to that question will likely determine the extent to which this latest Marlins rebuild succeeds. Miami really does have a quality farm system and a few intriguing young talents in the bigs. Whether ownership has the gumption to put the finishing touches on the rebuild in the next couple years remains to be seen.