Last in war, last in peace, and last in the National League: the Marlins were the first NL team to be eliminated from postseason contention in 2018. And while they technically possessed some chance of qualifying for the playoffs as late as September, a reasonable observer would have mentally dismissed this year’s club sometime around the Giancarlo Stanton trade back in December of 2017.
The death of Jose Fernandez was a tragic loss for his family, his friends, and the world of baseball generally — and it’s hard to tell the story of the Marlins on the field without noting the impact of his absence. But even as Fernandez’s death has presented a major obstacle for the team’s success on the mound, it doesn’t explain why the organization has had so much trouble developing other young starting pitchers. The 2017 Marlins were good enough to hang around the edges of the Wild Card race, but they never really had that look of a contender and trading the team’s
only top prospect, Luis Castillo, to acquire Dan Straily before 2017 was yet another short-sighted organizational move.
Towards the end of the 2017 season, MLB officially approved the sale of the Marlins to a group led by Bruce Sherman, mercifully ending Jeff Loria’s reign of terrible, during which he somehow made Frank McCourt or the Wilpons look like model owners by comparison. Derek Jeter’s 4% stake bought him a job as the CEO of the Marlins, a honeymoon that didn’t last for even the initial press conference, as the future Hall-of-Fame shortstop warned that there would be some unpopular moves. And in Marlins Land, “unpopular moves” indicates a fire sale.
What makes Miami’s recent fire sales different from those performed by other clubs (or even earlier Miami teams) is that the Marlins’ front office has begun dismantling the roster before the even giving its best players a chance to compete. The 1997 and 2003 Marlins at least won the World Series trophy before their executions, while this iteration of the Marlins had peaked below .500. Nevertheless, Jeter and company dealt Stanton, Dee Gordon, Marcell Ozuna, and Christian Yelich, leaving the Marlins with some prospects to repair a farm system that was one of the worst in baseball but featured little relevance to the 2018 campaign.
ZiPS projected the Marlins to be the worst team in baseball, with a mean projection of 64-98 and roughly a 1-in-900 shot at making the playoffs, the longest odds in baseball. The computer didn’t see much upside in the team, with few players of value, an empty pitching staff, and a collection of newly acquired prospects with little chance of helping the present version of the team (whatever their relevance to the future).
The 64-win projection is looking largely correct, but at least the Marlins aren’t the worst team in baseball, currently requiring only a few wins to clinch that extremely marginal distinction (but also losing out to the Orioles for the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft). Miami didn’t even put two consecutive wins together until late April, by which point they were already nine games out in the division. At no time was this team playoff-relevant — or, to be honest, fan-relevant, with the paid attendance dropping from 20,000 per game in 2017 to under 10,000 per game in 2018. No such breakdown of paid attendance is available, but my guess is that crowds at Marlins Park in 2018 were composed mostly of opposing teams’ fans, people whose home air conditioners were broken, and petty criminals serving out community-service hours.
There were some bright spots in 2018. J.T. Realmuto continued to establish himself as a legitimate star catcher, batting .284/.348/.499, good for a 131 wRC+ and 4.7 WAR, and getting to the All-Star Game on merit rather than as Miami’s participation trophy. Realmuto celebrated his All-Star appearance by becoming a subject of constant trade rumors, none of which came to fruition as the Marlins publicly took a stance of holding out for a monster package, which makes sense as they’re not actually paying Realmuto anywhere near his actual worth yet. Brian Anderson put up a solid rookie season, with a .355 OBP and enough WAR to now rank him as the second-best Brian Anderson in history, behind Brian Anderson and just ahead of Brian Anderson. One of their 14 pitchers with 30 or more innings pitched almost got their ERA- under 100 (the departed Brad Ziegler at 104). As far as I know, no Marlins burned their house down while being naked, drunk, and attempting to bake cookies on a George Foreman grill.
While it may seem like I’m just being mean at this point, it was a rather bleak season on all levels. Lewis Brinson, acquired in the Yelich trade, struggled mightily in his initial stints (more on that in a few). Monte Harrison was exposed a bit against the tougher pitchers in Double-A, seeing his strikeouts explode from 139 to 215 and failing to slug .400. Magneuris Sierra didn’t hit in the majors or the minors. Isan Diaz struggled in Triple-A and broke a bone in his wrist. I’m not sure Braxton Garrett actually exists. Sandy Alcantara still has his terrific fastball, but I can’t help but be skeptical of a guy who can hit 100 when he can’t even strike out Pacific Coast League batters; major leaguers are even harder to finish off.
On the plus side, Nick Neidert is still looking like a solid mid-rotation starter, though unlikely more.
What Comes Next?
I think it’s safe to say that the Marlins aren’t going to be heavily involved in the Bryce Harper or Manny Machado sweepstakes this offseason — nor should they be, from a baseball standpoint. While I’m skeptical about the Miami front office and Derek Jeter in terms of constructing a modern organization, the task of rebuilding the Marlins, specifically, comes with an addition challenge — namely, of wooing back fans who have witnessed the club’s multiple fire sales. There’s only so many times your local sub shop can put rats in your cheesesteak before you’ll stop believing that their new rat-free menu is Better Than Ever. There’s no gimmick of a new stadium to hotshot a year or two of better attendance, either, though I have to admit to wanting to see the team ask for one just to see the local and national reaction.
To get fans back at this point, I believe that Miami can’t just put together a good team, but a consistently good team that has multiple 95-win runs and invests in keeping that team together — even if it requires making deals that aren’t officially good “baseball moves.” Given how the new ownership group started off — almost immediately announcing a slashed payroll after closing the sale — I’m not sure that they have it in them to succeed. I don’t believe they have the personnel to emerge from their rebuild as an Astros-type club, and I don’t believe they have any level of trust with whatever is left of the fanbase. It’s hard to blame them for failing to exhibit enthusiasm for a franchise that continually pulls the rug out from under them. If anyone can turn around the Marlins, I suspect it needs to be someone like a Mark Cuban, who is willing to look at things long-term and has deep pockets. The Marlins as a franchise have no credibility with any parts of the baseball world — be it media, statheads, fans, or other teams — and credibility is something that’s hard to earn and easy to spend.
Way-Too-Early Projection: Lewis Brinson
Brinson’s cup of coffee with the Brewers was a brutal one in 2017. The outfielder went 3-for-31 with 13 strikeouts during his initial callup and 2-for-16 after the All-Star Break. With an overall .106/.236/.277 line, the Brewers weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to hurry Brinson back from his late-season hamstring injury. A .328/.365/.586 line in spring training earned him the leadoff spot in the lineup to start the season, which he lost in about a week. I have to give credit to the Marlins for patience, but with a .186/.232/.338 line at the point of a hip injury that shut Brinson down for nearly two months, one has to say there are serious questions about Brinson’s bat, as good of a prospect as he was. He does have a .909 OPS in 33 plate appearances since coming back, but it’s hard to argue that his stock hasn’t continued to drop like Enron. Am I dating myself? What stocks are the kids into today?
In two years, Brinson’s projections have gone from an average-to-plus starting center fielder to those of a fifth outfielder who will struggle to make it out of his 20s in the majors. Not a good sign for one of the few prized pickups in return for the Marlins shedding their entire star outfield in order to save money. At this point, the Marlins have to hope that the stats are dead wrong on Brinson, but it’s hard to see him succeed with his approach at the plate: so far in the majors, he’s swung at more pitches than the average player and hit fewer of them. Javier Baez and Joey Gallo are similar in that way, but they actually crush the ball with loft when they connect, with both place in the top 10 for barrels in 2018 (third and ninth respectively).
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.