Posted September 26, 2012

Wait ’til next year: Miami Marlins

Miami Marlins, Ozzie Guillen
Heath Bell

Heath Bell’s struggles symbolized the Marlins’ grand plan gone awry in 2012. (US Presswire)

While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait Till Next year series.

Current record: 66-88 (.429, 5th in the NL East)

Mathematically eliminated: September 19

What went right in 2012: After years of penny-pinching, the Marlins were one of this offseason’s big spenders, committing $191 million to shortstop Jose Reyes, lefty starter Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell in anticipation of opening their new ballpark. They also traded for former Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano and brought in manager Ozzie Guillen, assuring that the team would be as colorful as its new digs and duds. The biggest risk there was committing $106 million over six years to Reyes, a talented but injury-prone player who had averaged just 98 games played over the previous three seasons with a high of 133 in 2010. Indeed, health was a major concern for the Marlins coming into 2012 given that their ace, Josh Johnson had made just nine starts since September 4, 2010 due to shoulder issues, and that former MVP-candidate Hanley Ramirez, who was to being pushed from shortstop to third base by Reyes, had played just 92 games and seen his production fall below average due to his own shoulder issues in 2011.

All three stayed healthy in 2012, with Reyes surpassing 150 games played for the first time since 2008 and Johnson making 30 starts for just the second time in his career. Zambrano, who had worn out his welcome in Chicago, came to camp in shape and largely kept his mouth and emotions under control. Third-year rightfielder Giancarlo Stanton continued to mature into a middle-of-the order monster at the plate, making his first All-Star team at the tender age of 22 and leading the majors in at-bats per home run entering play on Sept. 26. Further down the roster, the Fish got a solid sophomore season of high-leverage work from righty reliever Steve Cishek and a career year out of 30-year-old centerfielder Justin Ruggiano, who has hit .313/.374/.535 in 320 plate appearances thus far this season after compiling just 207 major league plate appearances prior to coming over from the Astros in a late-May trade.

What went wrong in 2012:

Yes, Reyes, Ramirez and Johnson were healthy, but they did not live up to their past glories. Reyes was the best of the bunch, assembling a batting line that resembled his career rates, but fell far short of his outstanding, though injury-shortened, walk year of 2011. Johnson was no more than a league average starter. Ramirez made a fairly smooth transition to third base despite some spring training scuttlebutt, and got a little of his power back, but otherwise looked more like the injured player of 2011 than the star of previous seasons and was traded to the Dodgers at the non-waiver deadline in what amounted to a salary dump. Reyes also turned out to be the best of the team’s offseason acquisitions. Buehrle, through their first 30 starts, matched Johnson in ERA (3.84) and losses (13), also failing to rise above league average. Zambrano pitched his way out of the rotation by mid-July and failed to meaningfully lower his mid-4s ERA in the bullpen thereafter. Bell, meanwhile, was a total disaster, going from one of the best closers in baseball over the previous three seasons to pitching his way out of the job altogether by the All-Star break. Bell blew four of his first seven save chances with the Marlins and hit the break with a 6.75 ERA, six blown saves, five of which resulted in his taking a loss, a walk rate of 5.2 per nine innings and an opponents’ batting line of .308/.394/.493. Bell has been far better as a set-up man in the second half, but the Marlins didn’t give him $27 million over three years to set up Cishek.

Elsewhere, the Marlins’ homegrown talent fared no better. First baseman Gaby Sanchez, a Rookie of the Year candidate in 2010 and an All-Star in 2011, hit his way off the team by mid-May and was flipped to the Pirates at the deadline. Leftfielder Logan Morrison, who posted a .390 on-base percentage as a rookie in 2010 and hit 23 home runs as a sophomore, struggled with the after affects of off-season surgery on his right knee and hit just .230/.308/.399 before the knee ended his season in late July, ultimately requiring another surgery. Stanton hit the disabled list as well, missing a full month mid-season due to a minor but necessary knee surgery. Just three games below .500 on July 4, the Marlins acquired Carlos Lee from the Astros to replace Sanchez at first base only to find themselves sinking further. By the time the trading deadline passed, 28 days later, they had unloaded not just Ramirez and Gaby Sanchez, but 28-year-old starter Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante in a deal with the Tigers, and relievers Randy Choate (in the Ramirez deal) and Edward Mujica, the latter of whom is on his way to the playoff as the Cardinals’ dominant seventh-inning set-up man. They still have Lee, however.

Things went no better off the field. Though attendance did improve with the opening of Marlins Park, pushing the Marlins above two million fans for the first time since their world championship season of 1997 and just the third time in franchise history, they still rank just 12th in the league, drawing a mere 27,347 fans per game. First-year manager Ozzie Guillen, meanwhile, proved to be a reliable source of embarrassing sound bites, earning a five-game suspension less than a week into the season by complimenting Fidel Castro in an interview with Time magazine, an insult to the large Cuban population in Miami, and later firing missives at Bryce Harper, the White Sox and the city of Chicago, the departed Ramirez, ESPN reporter Buster Olney and Bell. The last of which was actually instigated by Bell and may have done more harm to Bell’s status on the team than to Guillen’s.

The end result of all of that is that the Marlins need to lose just three of their remaining eight games to lose more games in 2012 than they did in 2011.

Overall outlook: Miami’s future looks a lot like their past. On Monday, a Miami Herald article brought the news that the Marlins, who opened the season with a payroll of more than $101 million, are looking to scale back for 2013, citing a source claiming that the team will aim to limit its payroll to “somewhere in the $70 million to $80 million range.” That for a team that already has $67.5 million committed for next season. The Marlins can also count on their attendance regressing, as is always the case in year two of a new ballpark when the home team doesn’t win, which could lead to further belt-tightening a year from now, just as Stanton and Morrison approach arbitration and Johnson approaches free agency. That article, incidentally, is headed by a war of words between owner Jeffrey Loria and former manager Fredi Gonzalez. I think the Marlins were trying to send us a message with their garish new uniforms and ballpark. Look away. Just look away.

– By Cliff Corcoran

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