The 2015 narrative in the NL East was mostly focused on the Washington Nationals being heavy World Series favorites. Narratives are great, but they don’t always hold true once the season actually starts.
With 2016 officially kicking off as teams begin reporting for Spring Training, there’s a new narrative surrounding the NL East. It’s now about this division being a two-horse race between these squads, leaving the other three out in the proverbial cold. For the Miami Marlins, they’re hoping a strong finish to 2015, a new manager and a full season of Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez can help them crash the party and be the second consecutive team to disrupt this narrative.
If the Mets could do it, why can’t they, right?
Coming off a 71-91 campaign, a few things must go right for the Marlins and manager Don Mattingly to accomplish this.
Dee Gordon must show he’s worth the five-year extension he just signed. Christian Yelich, Adeiny Hechavarria and other talented young players must take another step forward. Marcell Ozuna must rebound after a disappointing year. New acquisitions Wei-Yin Chen and Edwin Jackson must provide depth for the starting rotation.
But at the end of it all, the eventual success or failure of this Marlins team will fall in the hands of Fernandez and Stanton. It’s easy to see why the mere presence of these two on the lineup card completely changes everything.
Injury and ineffective performance doomed the Marlins’ rotation in 2015, which only included 11 starts from Fernandez because he was finishing his rehab from Tommy John surgery. Despite being limited to 64.2 innings, he managed to post a 6-1 record with a 2.92 ERA, 2.62 xFIP and 79 strikeouts. How valuable is he to this pitching staff? Well, he ranked seventh in innings pitched last year among Miami starters, but his 2.1 fWAR led them all.
Even further removed from surgery, he should continue getting stronger and form a solid one-two punch with Chen. Getting a full year of Fernandez is the equivalent to Mets fans thinking about having a full year of Yoenis Cespedes after acquiring him at the trade deadline last season. It should make a huge difference.
Whether he’s happy in Miami or not, Fernandez is a competitor and will take the mound with a ferocious attitude every fifth day. Him setting the tone for the rest of the pitching staff is something Mattingly is undoubtedly happy to have after letting Clayton Kershaw do the same thing for him during his days with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
He’s probably also happy about having a healthy Stanton because his presence transforms the lineup. I mean, Ichiro Suzuki is a great player to have as a depth piece on the bench, but Miami doesn’t want the 42-year-old appearing in another 153 games this year. If he does, that means something went wrong.
Placing Stanton in the middle of the Marlins’ lineup immediately lengthens it while simultaneously impacting how opposing pitchers approach surrounding hitters. Plus, him turning into a potential 50-homer threat is just icing on the cake.
Now, they just have to keep him healthy, productive and on the field for 130-plus games, something he’s only accomplished twice since 2010. Before a broken hamate bone prematurely ended his season, he posted a .265/.346/.606 triple slash with 27 homers and 67 RBI in 318 plate appearances (74 games). He sacrificed some plate discipline compared to what he accomplished in 2014, but was on pace to smash his previous single-season career high of 37 bombs.
To keep his value in perspective, we’ll use the same comparison we used for Fernandez – although he ranked ninth on the team in plate appearances, his 3.8 fWAR was second to only Gordon, who played in nearly twice as many games.
In a perfect world, the coaching staff would like that 29.9 percent strikeout rate to decrease. I bet they’d live with it if his .341 ISO can be sustained over an entire season’s worth of games, though. Bringing on Barry Bonds as Miami’s newest hitting coach gives Stanton a chance to receive a fresh perspective on hitting and improve in ways he hasn’t realized yet.
It’s so interesting to have these two superstars on the same team because their presence is equally important on both sides of the ball. The rotation is nothing to scoff at with Fernandez in it, but they don’t look the least bit intimidating without him. The lineup can do some serious damage with Stanton, but would probably be a middle-of-the-pack offense without him, at best.
With both of them healthy and ready to make an impact, the rest of the squad can use a strong finish from 2015 to continue building momentum. This young roster dealt with plenty last year – both on the field and in the clubhouse – but fought through it all and saw some encouraging progress come September.
The Marlins posted a 19-12 record down the stretch, which was the second-best mark in baseball during that time. Does this mean they’re wrongfully being left out of this year’s NL East narrative? Not really, but it means enough of the right pieces could be in place to attempt surprising people like the Mets did.
If there’s going to be any chance of that taking place, Miami absolutely needs their two best players on the field at the same time from start to finish. Playoff-caliber teams must have enough depth to sustain injuries, but there are some players that just can’t be replaced.
Fernandez and Stanton fall into this category. If one or both go down (again), it’s something they may not be able to recover from in 2016.
As we talked about earlier this week, everyone should be optimistic at the start of Spring Training, but sometimes that optimism isn’t very realistic. Despite having to fight what appears to be an uphill battle, the Marlins should feel good about their chances to surprise people this year.
They picked the right players to build a team around, and have done a pretty good job of doing so. Now it’s a matter of seeing if it can all come together in order to join this two-horse race.
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