The Miami Marlins' Biggest Issues Emerging from Spring Training
For a team that's probably going to finish last in the National League East for the third consecutive year, the Miami Marlins don't have many issues thus far.
Ricky Nolasco has already been named the Opening Day starter—shocking. Jacob Turner, Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez are still slated to follow Nolasco while Wade LeBlanc continues to make his case to be the team's No. 5 starter after throwing four shutout innings Sunday against the Atlanta Braves.
Among position players, second baseman Donovan Solano has hit .480 in 25 at-bats and Casey Kotchman is batting .435 in 23 at-bats. Kotchman is trying to win a spot on the team which, in his case, comes with the designation of starting first baseman if Logan Morrison isn't ready when the season begins.
According to Morrison's agent, Fred Wray, Morrison could be playing by April 15 after having surgery to repair a torn patella tendon in his right knee.
Meanwhile, with Team USA at the World Baseball Classic, slugging outfielder Giancarlo Stanton is hitless in seven at-bats, but he's broken a windshield with a home run during batting practice.
Stanton's teammate, closer Steve Cishek has two scoreless appearances, which includes the biggest out of Sunday's 9-4 win against Canada when Cishek induced Tim Smith to ground out to second baseman Brandon Phillips to end the eighth inning with the bases loaded while preserving a one-run lead.
And as far as the kiddies go, they have impressed as well. Future ace Jose Fernandez struck out two in two scoreless innings in his only spring training appearance while the Marlins' other star prospect, Christian Yelich, has been scorching hot as he's batted .375 with three home runs and 11 RBI in 32 at-bats. Yelich has been so good, it's prompted first-year manager Mike Redmond to sing his praises to MLB.com:
I'll tell you, man, I love putting him in that lineup. Every opportunity I have to put him in there, I get him in there. He gives you a great at-bat. It doesn't matter who he faces. Believe me, we go around and around [on where he'll start the season]. That's something that we'll have to talk about.
But not everything has been rosy with the Marlins...
The Center of Uncertainty
When spring training began last month, the Marlins' starting center field job was considered a two-horse race between Justin Ruggiano and Gorkys Hernandez.
Now, they have company.
After missing all of spring training with a strained lower back, Ruggiano finally made his spring debut last Saturday and played five innings, striking out twice against St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright. Meanwhile, Hernandez has batted just .174 (4-for-23) this spring.
Enter Chris Coghlan.
The 2009 National Rookie of the Year has gotten off to a great start—he's currently batting .344 (11-for-32)—and has played his way into the competition, according to Redmond from MLB.com.
We're going to start mixing him in there. Obviously, he's doing a great job. He's swinging the bat great, and playing a good outfield. He's definitely making a case for himself. We're going to run him out there in center.
We haven't really had anybody stand out there yet. There is still an opportunity for somebody to take that job.
After injuries and declining production in each of the last three years, if Coghlan comes out of nowhere to win the job, he would have earned it. But it might be more important for the Marlins if Ruggiano claims the position because of what he could provide.
Ruggiano hit .313 with 13 home runs and 36 RBI in 91 games last season, and he's expected to provide protection for Stanton in the lineup, especially since Morrison will probably be out to begin 2013. Redmond told the Miami Herald:
He gives us real pop; he can hit anywhere in that lineup. That’s definitely an area that we’re looking at, someone who can hit behind Stanton.
With less than three weeks left before Opening Day, stay tuned.
That said, off the field...
Marlins Management in More Hot Water
It seems as if the Marlins front office—particularly owner Jeffrey Loria—is a public relations nightmare.
After months of silence since the team's 12-player fire sale trade with the Toronto Blue Jays, Loria went on a three-day PR rampage (Feb. 24-26) that can only be described as unnecessary—which is putting it nicely—or delusional, which is what many people might call Loria nowadays.
On Day 1 of Loria's attempted makeover, he bought full-page ads in the Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel and Palm Beach Post and penned an 805-word "letter to our fans" to explain why the organization has traded many of its high-priced players for a bunch of prospects.
Acquiring high-profile players just didn't work, and nearly everyone on our team underperformed as compared to their career numbers. Our plan for the year ahead is to leverage our young talent and create a homegrown roster of long-term players who can win. In fact, objective experts have credited us with going from the 28th ranked Minor League system in baseball to the 5th best during this period. Of the Top 100 Minor Leaguers rated by MLB Network, we have six—tied for the most of any team in the league.
To tell you the truth, Loria is right. There was no point for the Marlins to keep Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Gaby Sanchez, Anibal Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez if the club continued to languish in the cellar.
However, the fifth-best minor league system DOES NOT guarantee future success because prospects are far from a sure thing. There's a reason why the Pittsburgh Pirates have not had a winning season for 20 consecutive years. The Pirates continually hit the reset button on the rebuilding process until recently, when Andrew McCutchen emerged as a franchise player.
The Marlins might have those franchise players now in Fernandez and Yelich, but a championship squad cannot be built on prospects alone. Take the Washington Nationals, for instance. The Nationals have Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper—all homegrown players—but the squad also employs Jayson Werth, Gio Gonzalez and Adam LaRoche—three players whom the Nationals acquired via free agency or through trades.
Another example would be the 2003 World Series champion Marlins. It had homegrown players such as Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, Miguel Cabrera and Luis Castillo, but the Marlins also acquired Ugueth Urbina, Juan Pierre, Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez and Carl Pavano. In other words, free agency and trades must supplement the farm system.
The majority of public funding came from hotel taxes, the burden of which is incurred by tourists who are visiting our city, NOT the resident taxpayers. The Marlins organization also agreed to contribute $161.2 million toward the ballpark, plus the cost of the garage complex. In addition, the Marlins receive no operating subsidy from local government funding. The ballpark required that all debt service is paid by existing revenue.
Apparently, according to this story, Loria's statement was only half right. Shocking.
On Day 2 of Loria's path of destruction, he met with about a dozen sports writers at Marlins Park. Video cameras were not allowed into the premises, that was reserved for the big finale, but Loria spoke for about 25 minutes on various topics associated with the Marlins. The full transcript can be found here.
What the second day brought was more evidence how much Loria is drinking his own spiked Kool-Aid.
For instance, he said the trade with the Blue Jays was not a fire sale, but rather "hit the restart button." However, that might pale in comparison to the response he gave about the reception he's received from the public:
I will tell you that on Saturday night I was at the food and wine festival. I was approached by maybe 20 or 30 people. All of them congratulated me, said you had to do what you did.
By the way, this was also the interview session where Loria defended himself from Reyes. At the beginning of spring training, Reyes took a parting shot at Loria, which included a claim that said Loria encouraged him to buy a house days before he was traded. Loria, unsurprisingly, denied that.
On Day 3, the final day of Loria's spiel, he addressed all members of the media at the team's spring training headquarters. The full transcript can be found here.
A day after saying he didn't break up the 1927 Yankees, Loria said the Marlins are not a Triple-A ballclub. But they might as well be, given the team the Marlins will be carrying out of spring training.
Some might think after the three-day PR blitz, Loria might find himself out of the public eye for a while. But last week, city officials want the Marlins to pay more than $30,000 in additional monthly rent for using one of the four city-owned garages as storage, according to the Miami Herald.
It just seems no matter what Loria and his staff does, they have emerged as a walking PR nightmare this spring.