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The Failed Potential of the Miami Marlins

When assembling a major league roster, an organization needs to know how to properly distribute their resources. From scouting to trading to free agents, balance is important. One area that the Miami Marlins thrived at during the 2010’s was with their player development.

As a result of numerous disappointing seasons during the early part of the decade, the team was able to shed major contracts and develop their young core at the major league level without any significant consequences. Back in 2012, the then Florida Marlins experienced some major turnover within the organization; including officially changing their name to the Miami Marlins, moving into a new ballpark, and basically restructuring their entire roster. 

That 2012 season had the team fully committed to competing, as the Marlins decided to go all in by signing big-name free agents like José Reyes and Mark Buehrle, as well as trading for veteran players like Carlos Lee. They were good signings in theory because of all the past success that these players once sustained. However, they were all signed in the latter parts of their career with many of them being washed up or declining in production.

And because of this disastrous experiment, the team failed spectacularly with an abysmal last place finish. The only silver lining that came with this season was that it allowed the franchise a chance to reset for the future. All the previous stakes were gone as they tore down their roster during the off-season and began their rebuild.

Almost every team needs a centerpiece to build their team around, and the Marlins already had their first key player in Giancarlo Stanton to work with. Entering 2013, Stanton had hit 93 career home runs in only three seasons; including an impressive 37 home runs the year prior in an injury shortened year.

Since Stanton displayed such raw power that was seen almost nowhere else, the Marlins decided to lock him up with a colossal contract. In November of 2014, Stanton signed the largest MLB contract up to that point with a mega deal worth $325 million over the span of 13 years. This was assurance for the team that their star outfielder was committed for the long haul. Despite all eyes being on Stanton, one insanely important player would debut in 2013.

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Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

Straight out of Cuba was the young phenomen José Fernández. The flamethrowing pitcher dazzled baseball fans right off the jump with an incredible rookie campaign. On a 100-loss team, Fernández was able to earn himself 12 wins with a shockingly low 2.19 ERA in 28 games started. These unheard of rookie statistics helped earn him a spot on the 2013 All-Star team, and eventually led to him winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award.

Even with another dreadful season by the Marlins in 2013, the young pitcher helped provide the franchise with a glimmer of hope for the future. Fernández’s 2014 season was cut short due to Tommy John surgery, however, he did not lose a stride when he returned towards the end of 2015, as he had a stellar 2.92 ERA in eleven games started that season. With an ace in the making, the future of the Marlins pitching rotation was looking up.

Many other key pieces debuted during the 2013 season; including outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, but they did not begin to blossom until the 2014 season when they both became full-time players. Yelich was the Marlins first round pick in 2010 and even though he never did anything too spectacular during his first few seasons, he showed promise with his bat.

2015 is really when Yelich started to find his footing in the league when he hit .300 for the first time. And then the following season, he began to break out as a legitimate threat in the lineup with 20+ home runs, 98 runs batted in, and almost another .300 season. The other young gun roaming the outfield in Miami was Ozuna, who was an international signing out of the Domincan Republic.

His career trajectory with the team started slightly stronger then Yelich’s, despite being more inconsistent. Ozuna was much more of a power hitter than an average hitter, and it showed during his first full season with 54 extra base hits; including 23 home runs. He struggled mightily in 2015; even resulting in a demotion to AAA mid-season.

However, Ozuna was able to recover the next year with some drastic improvements that earned himself an All-Star nod in 2016. These two players proved themselves early on, and because of this, the Marlins now possessed one of the most formidable outfields in baseball with Yelich, Ozuna, and Stanton.

One of the final pieces to solidify the Marlins roster came from an unexpected place. Prior to the 2015 season, Miami traded for speedster Dee Gordon. He was coming off an All-Star season in 2014 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but he was still a relatively unknown player with lots to prove. To put Gordon’s 2015 campaign into perspective, it is important to know he had a really good 2014 season, but 2015 Gordon looked like a different player.

He had a sensational offensive season with 200+ hits, 58 stolen bases, and a .333 batting average. He led the league in all those statistics as well as grabbing himself a Gold Glove at second base. Considering that Gordon was a utility player during his early years, this was definitely a pleasant surprise for the Marlins.

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Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

Entering the 2016 season, it seemed that Miami had all the pieces in place. Their young players were developing well, they had an ace on the frontline of their rotation, and the future was looking bright. The Marlins season wound up being much different than anyone expected, and it was what happened off the field that caught most of baseball off guard.

Throughout this season, they hovered around the .500 mark as the team was still building chemistry and working towards the future. However, right out the gate, it was revealed that Dee Gordon had tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. This was soul crushing for any baseball fan out there because Gordon was this “feel-good” story the year prior. A true underdog who had beat the odds and now everyone must look at his statistics with a grain of salt. More importantly for the Marlins is the fact that they lost their leadoff hitter for half the season.

Aside from the mediocre team performance and Gordon’s suspension, the Marlins seemed to still be improving. Their outfield was progressing as expected and their ace Jose Fernández was pitching at a Cy Young level. Another surprising bright spot was the emergence of catcher J.T. Realmuto, who hit over .300 in just his second full season in the big leagues. 

Everything came to a halt on September 25, 2016. That morning, Jose Fernández was tragically killed in a boating accident alongside two of his companions. The baseball world was shocked by the news as this beloved figure in Miami had his life cut short in an instant. Besides the emotional impact involved with Fernández’s death, the baseball implications for the Marlins were even more significant.

The man who was supposed to lead Miami’s rotation for the next decade was all of sudden gone. Fernández was the person that the team was going to lean on once they became competitive. He was truly an extraordinary player, but also an unbelievable person. It was clear that the Miami clubhouse was different after his passing, as his absence really demoralized the entire team.

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Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports

Despite all the hardships that came with 2016, the Marlins still had a very strong roster heading into the following season. The 2017 season was very important for this roster, as they had reached the point where expectations started to grow. Miami was also the host to the 2017 All-Star Game which just added another layer to this season.

With everything seemingly in place for the Marlins to start winning, inconsistency and underperformance once again prevailed. Because of the loss of Fernández, the Miami pitching staff was very thin. And with the team wanting to compete in 2017, they made the rash decision to acquire journeyman pitcher Dan Straily from the Cincinnati Reds for rotation depth.

What makes this deal so detrimental is the fact that they gave up three prospects for Straily; including pitcher Luis Castillo. As of right now, Castillo has a career 3.68 ERA in three seasons with Cincinnati and even earned himself an All-Star appearance in 2019. He is currently one of the game’s rising stars, who may even be a Cy Young candidate this season, and Miami gave him up for a player that is not even on the roster anymore.

The crazy thing is that the Castillo trade is not even close to the worst deal the Marlins will make. Fast forwarding to the end of the 2017 season, and even with mediocre results once again, finishing below .500 for the eighth season in a row, there is no denying that there were certain Marlins players with some very impressive offensive displays. Most notably has to be Giancarlo Stanton, who had a breathtaking 59 home runs, which is unheard of even in this day and age.

Considering the fact that he plays in the massive stadium of Marlins Park only makes his feat more impressive, which is why he deservingly won the NL MVP in 2017. Ozuna also had a career best season with 37 home runs, 100+ runs batted in, and hitting over .300 for the first time in his career. This helped him earn a spot on the NL All-Star roster in his home stadium.

Yelich had another real solid season in 2017 after winning the Silver Slugger Award the year before. Gordon came back better than ever after missing half the season in 2016 with 200+ hits, 60 stolen bases, 9 triples, and once again hitting over .300.

Realmuto began proving he was one of the best backstops in baseball with a very strong defensive season as well as showing more power at the plate, while keeping his batting average high. With a foundation this good, what does management decide to do? Tear it all down.

In August of 2017, New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter finalized a deal to purchase a portion of the Marlins. Jeter would be named Chief Executive Officer of the team despite only having a 4% stake and because of this newfound power, he decided to make some major changes. The ball was in Jeter’s court and he wanted to start from the ground up, which basically had almost none of that 2017 roster in his future plans.

Even with all the positives that many of the position players brought to the table, almost every major piece was being dealt elsewhere for salary relief and prospects. The first core player to be traded was Dee Gordon, who was dealt to the Seattle Mariners.

This deal was probably one of the most reasonable considering Gordon’s shaky past that included his PED suspension, as well as not being a player that the Marlins drafted and acting more of a placeholder rather than a full fledged asset for the foreseeable future.

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Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

Following the Gordon trade was the deal that shook the whole league. December 11, 2017 had Stanton, the reigning MVP, heading to the Bronx to team up with reigning Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge. This was the first major sign that the Marlins were not heading into 2018 with a winning mindset. Trading an MVP in his prime for a fairly lackluster return only proved that he was dealt for mere payroll flexibility.

The Stanton trade was surprising, but the next few that they made were even more questionable. Less than a week after Stanton went to New York, Miami sent Ozuna to the St. Louis Cardinals. Stanton was at the peak of his value coming off an MVP, but Ozuna was just coming into his own. The main positive to come from this trade was the acquisition of pitcher Sandy Alcántara, who would become an All-Star in 2019.

Other than that, the trade is ridiculous considering that the team was working so hard to develop their young outfield to just trade them away. And when Marlins fans thought the situation could not get any worse, the team made one of the most egregious trades in Major League history. In January of 2018, the Marlins traded away Christian Yelich to the Milwaukee Brewers.

A rebuild generally has teams trading away bad contracts and working with the young core that they possess. Yelich, who was only 26 at the time and entering his prime, was traded away for prospects. Yelich was a prospect that panned out and the Marlins chose to restart the entire player development process with different players instead of working with an already established major league player.

This deal was ludicrous at the time, and looking back at the trade now, it is just plain dumb. 2018 had Yelich breaking out by winning the batting title, hitting 30+ home runs, driving in 100+ runs, leading his team one game away from the World Series, and ultimately earning himself the NL MVP.

The following season would have been even more spectacular if not for a late season knee injury that shortened his 2019 campaign. The logic in trading away literally all of a team’s key players does not seem to make sense.

Christian Yelich cements MVP case and just misses the triple crown -
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports

After a dismal 2018 season, the last man standing for the Marlins in J.T. Realmuto was sent to the division rival Phillies; officially closing the book on that chapter of Marlins history. The quality of players that were once all on one roster is somewhat mind boggling. It truly shows that no matter how talented a team may look on paper, some rosters are just not built to win.

Miami did suffer some setbacks, but what franchise does not. The sheer idea of having an All-Star outfield that included 2 MVPs in their prime is any manager’s dream. Finding a good hitting catcher or a speedster in the home run hitting age is difficult. Miami had all of this, but were never able to make it click.

It is very interesting to think about the importance of Jose Fernández and wonder what could have been had he not been taken from this world so early. Pitching is literally half the equation in baseball and the Marlins lack of it definitely contributed to their years of disappointing seasons.

Ever since Jeter took over and restructured the entire team, the Marlins have been the bottom feeders of the NL East. They were unable to find the winning formula with all the great talent they once had, and without it, they are a lost organization. It is amazing that nothing was ever able to amount from grouping together so many great players, but that’s baseball. 

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