The Miami Marlins are expecting great things in 2015 given the team's overhaul this past offseason. But overhauls and turnover are not guarantees for success, especially when you gamble with volatile assets like the Fish did. Sure, there are many things that might go right in 2015 to bring the Marlins into the heat of the playoff picture. However, there are just as many things that could derail their upcoming season, and it would not be surprising if any of these happened.
1. Giancarlo Stanton's injury woes
The Giancarlo Stanton of last year had a nearly perfect season until he was hit in the face with a pitch that ended his season in early September. By that point, the Marlins had been out of the playoff race and he was only playing for a chance at 40 home runs and an MVP award. However, in the two years before that, Stanton suffered injuries during the season that knocked him out mid-year and sunk both the Fish's chances of winning and his own health. In 2012, it was Stanton's midseason injury that cost him a month's playing time and the All-Star Game nod. In 2013, an ankle injury in May likely played a role in debilitating him in the outfield and at the plate during the rest of the year.
Stanton has not exactly been the picture of health before last season. He previously only once managed to reach 150 games played in any year. He is now entering the first year of a 13-year, $325 million contract, meaning the Marlins are depending on him to provide wins now more than ever before. His injury-prone status is more important to the Marlins now that they have committed to him long-term, and his health this year is no different.
The primary backup for the Marlins in the outfield is Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro carries a well-known name, but he is a shell of the player he was just four years ago. Most of the projection systems are expecting replacement-level play from him this year, meaning than injury to Stanton would cause one of the biggest drops in production in the game. Stanton missing even one-sixth of the season would likely cost the Marlins close to one win. Stanton's legs have also been injured before and, in the case of 2013, have also affected his defensive performance. Staying on the field is ever-critical.
2. Jose Fernandez and the great unknown
Every pitcher recovers from Tommy John surgery differently. On the one hand, there are guys like Stephen Strasburg, who recovered like a champion despite a loss in velocity and is among the best pitchers in baseball. On the other hand, there is a guy like Brandon Beachy or Kris Medlen, guys who suffered initial injuries and basically missed seasons of playing time recovering from elbow problems. We can be as encouraged as we would like about Fernandez's attitude and work ethic, but nothing compares to throwing live baseballs in actual games. Who knows how Fernandez's body will respond?
There are countless factors going into this problem. Was Fernandez's injury random, or was there a mechanical issue? Was a fix performed, and could that fix help or hurt him? Will he compensate with other parts of his body and cause other problems? The results once Fernandez returns are almost impossible to determine. He could pick up right where he started or he could play a few games and have to be shut down once more. In the worst-case scenario, the Marlins could lose all of his three wins he is projected to produce this season.
3. Mat Latos, broken
Early on this offseason, when the Marlins first acquired Latos, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wrote an article about why Latos might struggle in 2015. The projections have since gotten better, but the essential reason behind the pessimistic first thought is still there: Latos has lost his velocity permanently. He is sitting in the 90's once again in spring training thus far, meaning that expecting him to regain that fastball that made him a four-win starter just two years ago may be asking too much.
Last year, Latos got away with half a season with good numbers despite the low velocity, but hitters could definitely catch up to his more wily approach if it comes down to that. If hitters begin to adjust to his changes secondary to the lost fastball, things could get as ugly as the Steamer projection initially suggested. A 4.20 ERA, for example, would only be worth 1.3 wins and would cost Miami 1.2 wins versus his projection.
4. Dee Gordon goes back to baseline
Prior to the 2014 season, Dee Gordon was a career .256/.301/.312 hitter. If you want to get an idea of how bad that is, Emilio Bonifacio hit .252/.303/.308 in 2009, and we all remember how awful 2009 was for the man eventually known as Bonerface. Of course, Gordon's 2014 season, in particular his strong first half, were also parts of his career, but the point is that he does not have a great track record for success. Gordon still has a low ceiling and his most useful skill, his speed, is damaged greatly if his hitting declines. Gordon's lack of plate recognition has limited his ability to draw walks and supplement his on-base percentage, and it also makes him surprisingly strikeout-prone. This is a bad combination for a guy with a lack of power.
In our keys to success piece, we discussed Gordon's high and low views, and we pointed out the likely ceilings and floors for this season. The difference between those two sides was about 1.5 wins, but the difference between his floor and the projection we have for 2015 is about half a win. If he plays closer to what he did before 2014, that could be a lot worse.
5. Jarred Cosart's control
Jarred Cosart has the biggest potential problem in the rotation for the Marlins, and that has nothing to do with his current inquiry regarding gambling allegations. He may be the pitcher with the most to lose in terms of this season's performance. He reigned in his control last season and got ground balls when on the Marlins last season, but his success still depended largely on avoiding home runs at extreme rates. He still lacks the strikeout touch or the avoidance of walks necessary to succeed in the bigs.
Once upon a time, Cosart posted a 4.35 FIP while walking more batters than he struck out back in Houston in 2012. It is not unreasonable to imagine the problem rearing its ugly head again given his career 4.28 xFIP and 4.57 SIERA, as those ERA predictors portend to bad performances in the future. This would not be the first time a former touted prospect in Miami went on to get ground balls and nothing else in his game, as the problem sounds very similar to Chris Volstad's issues. Volstad at some point became a replacement-level player, and a worst-case scenario would see Cosart posting an ERA in the 4.50's range and being one win worse than his projection.
The Marlins must avoid regressing and come up with a plan to support these players, in terms of both health and success on the field. Can they pull it off?