The Miami Marlins kicked off the déjà vu movement a little earlier than expected when they sent nearly everything with a price tag to the Toronto Blue Jays for prospects, young players, and noted problem child Yunel Escobar. This cycle of blowing it all up and starting over has happened so many times now that it’s starting to feel like Marlins fans are inside an episode of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, where the line "All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again" holds special meaning for the series.* This is reality, though, and owner Jeffrey Loria is less ethical than a revenge-seeking Cylon. His tale is a story for another day, though.
*Given the level of disappointment fans have with the organization right now, it’s probably a season-four episode.
The area where this latest trade feels most-similar to the Marlins’ past is in the rotation. Once again, the Fish are relying on promising youth to bring them back to contention, bracketing them with far less intriguing veteran hurlers. This time around, it’s Jacob Turner, Nathan Eovaldi, and Henderson Alvarez who have been tasked with bringing relevance back to Miami. While the premise is the same as it has always been, like many a remake, the cast and new script might not be up to par with that of their predecessors.*
*The re-imagined Galactica is infinitely more watchable than the original series, lest there be any confusion about the intended message here
The first youth-oriented Marlins’ rotation of the post-fire sale era came in 1998, after the organization’s first World Series title. Livan Hernandez was the old man of the staff at 23 years old and led the team with 33 starts. Brian Meadows (22), Jesus Sanchez (23), Andy Larkin (24), Rafael Medina (23), and Ryan Dempster (21) all had at least 11 starts, while reliever Kirt Ojala, age 29, chipped in for 13 starts as well. Youth isn’t everything, and Sanchez ended up as the most productive of the group on a rate basis, despite being a well below-average hurler by ERA+.
This was a case of the return on the trades not being major-league ready yet, though. A.J. Burnett, who came along with Sanchez in the Al Leiter trade, would make his debut at age-22 in 1999. Dempster had been a piece in an earlier trade of a veteran for kids, when John Burkett was sent to Texas in late 1996. The Marlins would continue adding arms, bringing in Vladimir Nunez and Brad Penny from the Diamondbacks in exchange for Matt Mantei, who had been Florida’s closer. All five of these pitchers -- Burnett, Dempster, Penny, Nunez, and Sanchez -- were part of the team’s 2000 rotation, with Sanchez and Nunez the old men at 25.
It didn’t happen all at once, but there was a clear plan here to invest in talented young pitching. The 26-year-old Matt Clement was brought in before the 2001 season. Josh Beckett, who was drafted in 1999 with the second pick overall, a selection earned with the Marlins awful 1998, made his debut in 2001 and headed into 2002 as the top prospect in all of baseball. Dontrelle Willis was acquired from the Cubs when he was 20 in exchange for the aforementioned Clement, who, by Marlins’ standards, was elderly. Carl Pavano was acquired in a trade that sent Cliff Floyd, a Marlins Methuselah at nearly 30 years old, back to Montreal.
You might remember all of these names as those that made up Florida’s excellent World Series- winning rotation of 2003. Whereas in 1997 free-agent splurging had helped bring the Marlins a ring, trades and the farm were the keys the second time around. Pavano and Penny led the team in starts with 32 a piece, Willis became a sensation at 21 years old with his leg-kicking 160 innings, and Josh Beckett set a new career high for starts and innings in his age-23 campaign. A.J. Burnett didn’t get a chance to contribute due to elbow surgery, but between the kids and Mark Redman’s surprise season, the Marlins hopped that stumbling block with ease.
The break-up of this staff took more time than the last, as the core remained into 2005. Free agency had more to do with the splitting of this rotation than trade-facilitated clearcutting; Burnett and Pavano both took off, and Beckett’s impending free agency was sent to the Red Sox along with Mike Lowell for prospects Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez.
The 2003-2005 group is what the current Marlins are hoping to build once more: a cost- controlled, inexpensive plethora of pitching. Is that realistic, though? The Marlins’ rotations of the early aughts were a special group. Beckett has been one of the game’s better pitchers when he’s healthy, and has been that way for a decade. Burnett struggled at times in New York, but he’s had his moments of greatness as well. Willis, before health problems and more began to plague him, was a great starter. Let’s not forget that the supporting cast during that stretch was made up of promising and productive arms like Pavano, Penny, and Clement.
The projected Marlins rotation doesn’t have that kind of promise. There is no universal top prospect like Beckett who can be depended on to anchor the staff. There’s no Burnett, who by the time he was 26 had already thrown 524 above-average innings in the majors (and would have thrown more if not for that elbow surgery … though the surgery might not have happened for those 524 innings; such is the revolving castle of Burnettian causality).
The pitchers with the most experience have their own issues. Jacob Turner, as a three-time top- 30 prospect courtesy of Baseball America, might be this club’s best bet to develop into a Burnett or Willis. Eovaldi is another top-100 prospect, but he was at the back-end of the rankings and is likely cut out for the same placement in the rotation. Henderson Alvarez and his total lack of swing-and-miss stuff will benefit from getting to face the pitcher instead of a designated hitter and from the move out of the AL East, but we’re talking about a pitcher with more youth than stuff at his disposal, and as we’ve already seen, being young isn’t enough on its own.
Wade LeBlanc is listed as the team’s fifth starter at the moment, and his career suggests that’s his ceiling. Ricky Nolasco teased being something more than a back-end option early in his career, but at this point his greatest contribution to baseball is as a living, breathing example of why Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) doesn’t apply to every pitcher. Ricky Nolasco is the ying to Matt Cain’s yang.
That’s the current rotation. There’s promise, but it’s mostly wrapped up in Turner. In that regard, it resembles the 1998 staff-- it's deeper in youth than in potential. A lot of work remains to be done, and the 1998’s volume-oriented placeholder approach serves as reminder that a staff doesn’t get rebuilt all at once. The Marlins will need a lot more help before this most recent reset brings them a 2003-esque staff, but even knowing better pitching could be on the way won’t make it any easier to watch them in the interim.