For the last several seasons, the theme behind the Miami Marlins had been something along the lines of a hefty rebuild. Now, as they gear up for 2021, it’s a slightly different story. It will be a different feel in previewing the 2021 Miami Marlins.
Frame it however you want, the Marlins exceeded expectations in 2020. Now there are higher expectations for Miami in 2021. Expectations after a winning record and their first postseason appearance in 17 years. Miami hadn’t posted a record above .500 since 2009, let alone 80 wins in that time span. It may not be at the level of World Series or bust, but the expectations heading into 2021 are elevated.
The Marlins didn’t just make the postseason but did so with a budget-friendly, pieced-together seasoned squad. Nearly the entire infield and outfield are back and the pitching staff which took Miami far will once again return. Then again, it’s a bolstered pitching staff in the rotation. They return 12 of their top 15 RBI leaders from the plate and nearly 60 percent of the team’s strikeouts from last season. There’s plenty of familiarity and camaraderie across Miami’s roster which has been missing at times over the last decade. Last year that metastasized into a top-20 league OBP mark (.319), just the fourth time since the franchise turned to the Miami Marlins name.
Now, it’s ok to curb any enthusiasm one may have about the Marlins. Expectations are higher yes, but from a team that still ranked 5th worst in total WAR last season, the ceiling isn’t terribly high. They hit the postseason in an expanded format yet the “bottom feeders” mantra charged up the team and helped them defeat the Chicago Cubs in the wild card round.
A Finalized Outfield
The higher expectations for Miami also stem from the infield. In terms of player splashes, the Marlins may not have made blockbuster moves on the MLB scene, but they made the right moves for them. It started with returning veteran outfielder Starling Marte on his $12.5 million player option. Keeping prized pieces in play during the latter parts of the rebuild is big, especially considering that Marte led the league with 61 games played in 2020. Marte also embodies how the Marlins are not the same old Marlins as the veteran sported the 10th best walk rate (4.8 percent). Marte was also part of a Marlins outfield that ranked third across all MLB teams in baserunning effectiveness according to Fangraphs.
Start of a Return Back
There are even higher expectations for the Marlins in 2021. Although it may be a far cry from their well-known outfield of the past in Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Giancarlo Stanton, it’s as close as it’s even been. It may not be a group that struck 117 home runs and had the league’s top outfield WAR in 2017. It is, however, a group that can be effective, unlike in years prior. Helping that cause out is the addition of another hot-bat outfielder in Adam Duvall. Signing the veteran really helps round out an outfield that already had some speed, and now has more power. Last year Miami struggled with the long ball and ranked 21st in launch angle. Meanwhile, with the Atlanta Braves in 2020, Duvall ranked among the best in that category, fourth in MLB to be exact. That ranked just below Mike Trout (third) and above Anthony Rendon (tenth).
All that is added to the fact that the Marlins will bring back Corey Dickerson. The same 31-year-old vet that sported a slash line of .258/.311/.402 with 50 total hits and 17 RBI. All told the projected starting outfield for the Marlins comes in with a combined WAR of 1.5. The outfield also contains the likes of Magneuris Sierra and Garrett Cooper who may now have a dual role to work out. There’s also the likes of Jon Berti who has the ability to play out in a super-utility role. Ultimately, there’s strength, speed, and depth in the outfield, something not seen from a Marlins roster in several years.
A Bullpen Overhaul
Perhaps the biggest overhaul of the offseason is the work the Marlins did to their bullpen. Included in the overhaul were six trades and free agent moves that brought in proven strike throwers. It started with trading for Cleveland Indians bullpen arm Adam Cimber. Meanwhile, multi-year hurlers in Ryne Stanek and Jose Urena were let go. Cimber throughout his time has accumulated a strikeout per nine rate of 6.5 or more twice out of his three years pitched. That then led to Zach Pop joining the fray from the Arizona Diamondbacks, Anthony Bass coming from the Toronto Blue Jays, and Dylan Floro coming over from the Los Angeles Dodgers just to name a few.
The influx of additions will surely help to boost a Marlins bullpen that held the third-worst WAR (2.2) among MLB bullpens in 2020. The fastball wasn’t as effective for Miami (15.5 percent home run rate) but beyond that came the issue of strikeouts. The Marlins bullpen accounted for just 8.05 strikeouts per nine innings, second-worst among MLB teams. Now, the top brass in Miami has put a significant effort into changing that state for the Marlins.
An Infield Intact
The higher expectations for Miami also lie in the infield. Every single person on the infield has experienced some major league play. The infield will once again be anchored down by third-base star Brian Anderson who paced the Marlins lineup in home runs (11) and RBI (38). Although the Marlins weren’t a power-hitting team (60 home runs), they were a fairly effective hitting team. In fact, whenever the Marlins did strike a hit, they were pretty productive, sporting a .306 average on balls in play (BABIP). He’s one of only two homegrown players for Miami and he’s a very steady player who will continue to post up big numbers in 2021.
Joining Anderson will be the familiar lineup of fan-favorite Miguel Rojas at short. Despite just four home runs, Rojas was one of the leaders in slugging (.496) and paced the team in on-base percentage (.392). His exceptional fielding abilities surely guaranteed him his current two-year contract (expiring at the end of the season). He used those skills to lead the Marlins with a 3.7 fielding WAR and will likely do so once more in 2021.
Higher Expectations in the Infield
Also involved will be another resurging year from Jesus Aguilar at first base. The Venezuelan native did pretty well for himself in 2020 as part of a resurging year. He hit .277 with 34 RBI while striking a wRC+ mark of 122. That’s certainly enough to keep the 30-year old in the starting lineup, but there’s pressure looming.
Thanks to the arrival of Duval, that puts 26-year-old Garrett Cooper in an odd situation. After playing outfield the majority of 2020, he’s now most likely set to join Aguilar at first. There were talks of potentially trading Cooper but it’s hard to just remove a productive bat out of the lineup. First base seems to have the most availability with Aguilar not likely to play near 162 games in 2021. Plus Cooper has been one of Miami’s most successful hitters with a .793 OPS and a 114 wRC+ mark. Using him in a super-utility role might actually be the best thing for both sides as Cooper has struggled with injuries. Just 155 games saw Cooper healthy in a Marlins uniform.
Chisholm with the Win
Perhaps one of the biggest shifts in the infield will be what will come at second base. Prior to Spring Training, the prevailing thought was that the 2019 MiLB player of the year in Isan Diaz had the spot wrapped up. Sporting a .828 OPS and a 125 wRC+ mark, Diaz shot into the bigs for 223 plate appearances between 2019 and 2020. Unfortunately, Diaz didn’t do much with his time, sporting a slash line of just .174/.251/.294. After opting out of the 2020 season initially, Diaz just couldn’t get back any stride, and it continued into spring training. There he mustered an abysmal 2-for-34 mark.
Meanwhile, Jazz Chisholm (Miami’s fourth-ranked prospect), has shown quite a spark since coming over from the Zac Gallen trade. That included batting .268 with three homers, and now the starting second-base spot for opening day. There’s still a lot to go in the majors for Chisholm (.161/.242/.321 in 21 MLB games) but his plus speed has more potential than Diaz at the moment.
Behind the Plate
Since J.T Realmuto donned a Marlins jersey, Miami really hasn’t had much behind the plate. Recently, Chad Wallach took on the duties in the 2020 postseason but currently, the buzz is surrounding former Philadelphia Phillies backstop, Jorge Alfaro. Once again, there lie higher expectations for Miami in 2021. The 27-year-old was supposed to be the next big thing to replace Realmuto. The thought was nice as his skills are solid. He has raw power with his arm and his bat and it has shown as of late. In 2019, Alfaro ranked in the 83rd percentile in hard-hit percentage and 77th in barrels met. In that year he was also in the 89th percentile in pop time to second base.
The problem for Alfaro has been translating all that power and skill into tangible production. He is in the same bubble with high expectations for Miami. In 2020, per statcast metrics, Alfaro ranked worst among 62 eligible catchers in pitch framing and cost the team three runs in extra strikes. That’s primarily what sidelined Alfaro for the majority of the 2020 postseason. Now, it’s up to him to round out his talents and become the second coming of what many still think he can be. He will likely take on the starting role, at least to begin the 2021 campaign.
Higher Expectations From the Starting Pitching Staff
Despite the experience back on offense and the youthful new pieces, it’s the starting staff on the mound with higher expectations for Miami. That’s for good reason. Collectively, they helped render a power-hitting Chicago Cubs team practically powerless (nine combined hits, one total run) in the 2020 postseason.
Strong Numbers on the Mound
Just look at the projected rotation of Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez, Sixto Sanchez, Elieser Hernandez, and Trevor Rogers. Across the 2020 campaign, those five each allowed an xWOBA of .298 or lower. Considering that only one other team (Los Angeles Dodgers) could say that, it was quite an impressive feat. In addition, four of those Marlin’s hurlers (Lopez, Hernandez, Sanchez, and Rogers) produced an xERA of 3.49 or lower. They were four of just 36 pitchers across MLB to be able to claim that feat. Once again, only the Dodgers have matched that mark.
Now even that look will have to be halted slightly as Sanchez will not make the opening day roster. Noted by MLB.com’s Christina De Nicola, due to a delayed Spring Training, Miami’s top prospect will be at the alternate training site in Jacksonville. The Marlins have routinely said they want Sanchez at 75 pitches before he hits regular-season action, so this isn’t that much of a surprise. With the return of the 162-game schedule, so too is Miami’s caution with bringing Sanchez back to the MLB ranks so quickly. Sanchez will most likely have an innings or pitch limit so easing into things would help that out even more.
It was a small sample size across 2020 but it was more of a glimpse into just how dominant the starting rotation can be in 2021. Overall, it will be a season to behold for the Marlins from the crack of the bat to the toss of the ball. Whether good or bad, the higher expectations for Miami could turn out to be great or more of the same. Only time in the 2021 campaign will tell.
Projected Starters For Opening Day
C: Jorge Alfaro
1B: Jesus Aguilar
2B: Jazz Chisholm
SS: Miguel Rojas
3B: Brian Anderson
LF: Corey Dickerson
CF: Starling Marte
RF: Adam Duval
Embed from Getty Images
Starling Marte, Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez, Sixto Sanchez, Elieser Hernandez, Trevor Rogers, J.T Realmuto, Chad Wallach, Jorge Alfaro, Jazz Chisholm, Isan Diaz, Jesus Aguilar, Miguel Rojas, Brian Anderson, Adam Cimber, Ryne Stanek, Jose Urena, Zach Pop, Anthony Bass, Dylan Floro, Nick Neidert, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, Giancarlo Stanton, Adam Duvall, Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, Corey Dickerson, Magneuris Sierra, and Garrett Cooper.