Calling the Miami Marlins a dumpster fire in 2013 is an insult to waste receptacles. The club started the year 1-9, was 35-58 in the first half, and finished the season at 62-100, the second-worst mark in the majors and in the team's 21 year history. Their season was just a complete mess.
However, things began to improve as the season went on. Their young pitching took a step forward. Young left fielder Christian Yelich was promoted at midseason, and held his own in 62 games. Miami also made numerous improvements over the offseason, resulting in huge turnover on their roster – the only Opening Day starters expected to start on Opening Day this year are Giancarlo Stanton and Adeiny Hechavarria. Could the Marlins be the biggest surprise of 2014?
I think they can be. Not many teams this offseason have impressed me as much as Miami, who has brought in Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones, Casey McGahee, and Rafael Furcal and will pay that quartet just $13.35 million this season. Throw those four into a lineup that already includes Yelich, Stanton, Hechavarria, and 23-year old center fielder Marcell Ozuna, and you have the makings of a lineup that is bound to improve on the Marlins' league-worst offense from a year ago.
The Marlins players who had the most disastrous season from a year ago are gone – Casey Kotchman, Juan Pierre, Placido Polanco, and Austin Kearns are gone. Chronically disappointing younger players Chris Coghlan and Logan Morrison were also shown the door. Bench players who got too much playing like last year, like Greg Dobbs, Jeff Mathis, Donovan Solano, and Ed Lucas, won't be shoe horned into playing time this year unless a starter gets hurt.
Miami's pitching staff was also much better than expected a year ago, ranking in the top half of the majors in ERA. Even if you want to give extra credit because of the presence of veteran Ricky Nolasco, the team's ERA improved in the second half after he was dealt to the Dodgers. And while a lot of Miami's success was because of the electrifying Jose Fernandez, three of Miami's four other projected starters for 2014 (Henderson Alvarez, Jacob Turner, Nathan Eovaldi) all also had ERAs under 4.00 with solid peripheral stats. Eovaldi and Alvarez were especially good, considering each missed the first three months of the year with shoulder problems. Did I mention that all four of those players are 23 or younger? They're not exactly on the downswing of their respective careers.
And while bullpens are notoriously fickle, the Marlins are taking a page out of the Atlanta Braves book of bullpen creation. Only two of their relievers, Mike Dunn and closer Steve Cishek, are arbitration-eligible, and both still have three seasons of arbitration remaining. Dunn is the oldest member of the Marlins bullpen – and he's just 28. Throw in 27-year olds Cishek and A.J. Ramos, 26-year olds Dan Jennings and Arquimedes Caminero, and 23-year old Carter Capps, and you have all the makings of a bullpen where every member can strike out a batter per inning, and do it very cheaply too.
Let's get something out of the way – the Marlins aren't going to contend with the Braves and Nationals for the NL East crown. But a .500 record is a real possibility for them, and third place in the division is a realistic goal for Miami in 2014.