Why the Marlins will win the pennant

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

On Opening Day, everyone can dream a little... or a lot.

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No, that's not true. Truth be told, the Marlins are barely closer to winning the NBA championship than they are to winning the pennant this year. But what can be said about the 2014 Marlins is that they are closer this year than they were last season. Last year, the Marlins were using a number of stopgap players in various positions and only a few players who held true protential. This year, different (and potentially better) stopgaps have arrived, but there are at least a few more promising names on the docket surrounding Giancarlo Stanton than there were last season. In fact, a number of players emerged in 2013 who could prove to be core members of the next competitive Marlins team.

The franchise has not had success developing hitting prospects as of late, with a number of non-Stanton players failing before they ever reached the big leagues, but that appears to be changing. The most important prospect is Christian Yelich, who parlayed a big season in Double-A into a solid debut in 2013 by batting .288/.370/.373 (112 OPS+). Yelich was a consensus top-20 prospect going into last season, but will he travel the path of stardom like Stanton or flounder like Jeremy Hermida before him?

The Marlins also made some outside additions to bolster last year's league-worst offense. The biggest and most noteworthy pickup was free agent catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who was obtained for a reasonable price of $7 million a season for the next three years. Saltalamacchia is tasked with improving one of the worst offensive catching units in baseball last year (.194/.249/.280). Last year, he made fractional gains on his strikeouts (29.6 percent, down from 30.9 percent over the previous two years) and walks (9.1 percent, up from 7.4 percent) that made his game at the plate more consistent. The Marlins are also banking on more of the same power he provided last year, even if the hits drop a bit due to his .372 BABIP regressing. Anything would be better with the bat than another year of Jeff Mathis, and Saltalamacchia is also known for his solid game-calling behind the plate.

This is especially important after the great leap the rotation made last season. Jose Fernandez's jump from "questionable rookie inclusion" to "elite All-Star starter" was a surprising but enjoyable one. Fernandez turned in one of the finest rookie campaigns for a pitcher in recent memory, ranging from his ridiculous 2.19 ERA to his fiery 27.5 percent strikeout rate to his excitable mannerisms. For the Marlins, he represents the perfect player to carry them into a new era for the franchise; he is a young, fan-friendly, dominant ace of Cuban descent who can appeal to all aspects of the team's fanbase. The expectation is that, at 21 years old, Fernandez can only improve from his great heights of last season. He is going to be a crucial part of the next Marlins pennant winner, so his development in 2014 is essential, and the Marlins will at least be looking for more of the same from their best young starter since Josh Beckett.

The rest of the rotation also deserved merit and could be looking at great things in 2014. Nathan Eovaldi has a new fastball that averages close to 96 mph. He just completed a season in which he allowed just a 3.39 ERA with an improved strikeout rate. The Marlins are expecting him to find his second and third pitches and become a legitimate mid-rotation starter behind Fernandez. Henderson Alvarez quietly had a strong second half, complete with nary a home run allowed (two in 102 2/3 innings) and finishing with a no-hitter.  If either can become a legitimate long-term option in Miami, the Fish will have figured out another piece of the difficult rebuilding puzzle this year.

The rebuilding process is important, because the Marlins boast a good cadre of prospects, led by their strong pitching depth. Top rospect Andrew Heaney is a potential midseason replacement who could make a Fernandez-like surprise debut. Heaney's game is consistent in approach and, so far in the minors, good results. The Marlins also have prospects in the high minors like Brian Flynn, Justin Nicolino, and Adam Conley who could all be ready in the next year or two. The Fish resisted the trade temptation this offseason in order to see if any of these parts could develop into pieces for an increasingly competitive Marlins roster in the future.

All of this means that the Marlins could be competitive in two years' time, but the 2014 season holds a lot more problems than good for the Fish. In order to be a winning ballclub this year, Miami would have to get a monster sophomore effort from both Fernandez and Yelich, establishing those two former top prospects as true stars. The club would have to develop a strong rotation behind Fernandez, with Heaney, Alvarez, and Eovaldi all being ready as second- or mid-rotation starters from the onset. And somehow, the additions of Saltalamacchia and the other veterans need to add enough average wins over the replacement-level play from last season to boost Miami into the 80-win range. Essentially, everything has to go right for Miami and some good luck just to come close to being competitive.

The Marlins will not win the 2014 World Series. But after the 2013 season, any improvement will feel like a pennant win.

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