2012 was supposed to be a year of rebirth for the Miami Marlins. The
gaudy oh-god-my-eyes colorful new Marlins Park opened up in Miami to much fanfare and the team did everything it could to signal a new era for the franchise. New logo and uniforms? Check. New big-name manager? Check. Huge spending on free agent stars? Check. The only real question was whether the team had enough firepower to win the NL East outright, or if they'd have to settle for a wild card spot in the playoffs. Many smart baseball minds pegged them to be a solid contender.
Instead, the team went 69-93 in its first year with the new sobriquet and colors, and fans longed for the teal and pinstripes of '97 or '03. The best laid plans can come to nothing, as the Marlins repeated their last place finish from 2011, behind even a disappointing Philadelphia Phillies squad and a rebuilding New York Mets team.
What Went Right
Giancarlo Stanton has cemented himself as a phenomenal talent and a cornerstone in the Marlins' outfield. The powerful young slugger mashed his way to his first All-Star game, hammering 37 home runs despite playing in just his age-22 season. His wRC+, a metric that measures total offense as compared to the major league average, was sixth in the majors among players with more than 400 plate appearances at 156, which means that Stanton's bat was 56% better than the league average. He mashed left-handed and right-handed pitchers with impunity. Not to mention, Stanton has turned into a very good defensive outfielder and adds value to the team with his glove and arm.
New additions Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle played very well in their first seasons near South Beach. Reyes wasn't quite the MVP candidate he was in 2011, but hit well (.287/.347/.433), stole 40 bases, and played solid defense at shortstop. All that combined to make Reyes a 4.7 fWAR (Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs) player, which is performance at an All-Star level. Buehrle was his usual solid self too, logging over 200 innings, limiting walks, and keeping his ERA reasonably low at 3.74.
Rotation mainstay Josh Johnson was the team's best pitcher yet again, despite only winning eight games on the season. He effectively limited home runs in the Marlins' cavernous new ballpark, and his strikeout rate stayed strong en route to a team-leading 3.40 FIP. Though he wasn't as dominant as he had been in 2010, Johnson pitched 191 innings in his return from injuries that limited him last season. And everyone was surprised by the emergence of Justin Ruggiano as a credible offensive threat. The former Rays farmhand joined the team via the Astros in May, and he hit the ball with authority in the majors. Ruggiano managed 13 HR and 14 SB in just a bit more than half a season of play while staking a claim to a regular outfield spot in Miami for 2013. Though Ruggiano likely is at his peak (he's 30 years old), finding a somewhat-talented offensive player for free was a nice bonus for Miami.
When the team went into a tailspin, and found themselves rapidly falling out of contention, the front office pulled the trigger on a couple of moves that may end up shaping the team over the long term. Longtime Marlin Hanley Ramirez, who hasn't been a superstar since 2009, was shipped to Los Angeles for starter Nathan Eovaldi. Eovaldi was no great shakes in his rookie season, but packs a prospect pedigree and was about league-average in his time with the Fish, posting a 4.43 ERA and 4.16 FIP. He should help fill out the rotation in Miami for a couple of years, at the least, with the potential to be a #3 starter at his best.
The other moves that the Marlins made look even better as they dealt Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez to the Tigers for Jacob Turner, Rob Brantly, Brian Flynn and a draft pick. While Infante was an above-average regular at second for the Marlins, his production fell off upon arriving in Detroit. Sanchez, so solid over the last few seasons, was quickly pricing himself out of the Marlins' range, and continued solid production after moving to Detroit. Meanwhile, both Turner and Brantly were quickly moved to the majors, and both showed flashes of being plus contributors at the big league level. Brantly profiles as a high-contact, low-power offensive catcher in the mold of John Jaso, while Turner has the potential to be a front-of-the-rotation arm if he can develop his off-speed pitches. The Marlins also added third-base prospect Zack Cox in exchange for reliever Edward Mujica.
These moves are quite different from the "fire sales" that Marlin fans might be used to. They're actually savvy moves that eliminated players who were fitting outside the team's window to win, while adding cost-controlled young players with enough potential to be real major league regulars. While it may be disappointing to see long-time Marlins like Ramirez and Sanchez leave the team, a number of experts agree that these were smart moves from a team that needs to allocate resources smartly and take advantage of an opportunity in a couple of years, perhaps not in 2013.
Team MVP: Giancarlo Stanton
What Went Wrong
Everything else wasn't so good, you guys. New manager Ozzie Guillen opened the season by making insensitive comments about Fidel Castro, and that should have been the first sign that things weren't going to be great. Guillen, always outspoken, consistently gave Miami beat reporters something to talk about. He also carried on the proud Marlins tradition of managing teams with clubhouse drama.
Where new acquisitions Reyes and Buehrle were solid, if not spectacular, the team's third big offseason acquisition has been a huge bust. Heath Bell posted a 5.09 ERA, lost his job as closer part-way through the season, and stirred up clubhouse trouble by complaining about the team. Unfortunately for the Marlins, Bell's performance has slipped continuously before he signed his gaudy free-agent contract, so it doesn't look like a sharp recovery is in the cards. With the team on the hook for another $18 million dollars over the next two years, Bell will be part of the 'pen, just not the stopper he was expected to be.
Many pundits predicted a breakout season for batsman Logan Morrison, but instead, Morrison fought injuries and club management (especially Guillen) while providing replacement-level production on the field. A line of .230/.308/.399 won't make him any friends or fans. He'll look to come back strong next season from knee surgery, but Guillen has said he will have to really fight to win a starting spot on the team. And super-utility speedster Emilio Bonifacio also dealt with consistent injury and performance issues, suffering a season-ending knee injury in September. Bonifacio looks to be a starter at second or third base in 2013, but he'll need to improve on his .330 OBP if he wants to be a real offensive contributor.
Other presumptive "starters" like John Buck, Donnie Murphy, Carlos Lee, Greg Dobbs, Bryan Petersen, Gorkys Hernandez and the now-departed Gaby Sanchez played roles that ranged from "barely-acceptable" to "any guy at Triple-A could have done a better job." Lee, Dobbs, Peterson, Hernandez and Sanchez, especially, proved to suck the on-field performance of the team down a hole from which it could not recover.
The less said about Carlos Zambrano, the better.
Oh, and the team couldn't win more than 65 games. That's not very good, especially given the team's $90 million payroll. As a result, the team's payroll will drop for 2013, so don't expect a ton of free agent influx in the short-term future.
Team LVP: Heath Bell
Quick 2013 Outlook
Sorry Marlins fans, but the NL East is a tough place to play. With the meteoric rise of the Nationals and the inspired play of the Atlanta Braves, the short-term outlook in Miami isn't great. The payroll is dropping and the best players on the team (aside from Stanton) are aging. The hopes that this team have are predicated on slow aging curves from players like Reyes and Buehrle, while the team continues to find young, cost-controlled players from their minor leagues and those of other franchises. Wise veteran acquisitions to fill out the roster (read: no more big investments in fading closers) and consistent pitching might make this team a wild card contender next season, but I wouldn't bet my house on it. Christian Yelich, a powerful young hitting prospect, might make a cameo in 2013, but he isn't likely to help this team until 2014 at the soonest. In truth, their window to win probably starts in '14 or later, as well.
While 2012 was supposed to be the start of a new, dynamic era for the Marlins, it turned out to be a near-repeat of their disappointing 2011. But things aren't all bad, as few teams have young superstars as dynamic as Giancarlo Stanton. The new-stadium shine might have already worn off, but given a few savvy moves and development from the team's host of young players, the Marlins could be NL East players at some point in the future.