Baseball is officially underway in Jupiter, but Marlins fans still do not know what to expect from their team. The Marlins were relatively quiet this offseason, really only adding on a need-be basis. Nonetheless, the Marlins were successful in filling some holes, including bolstering the bullpen and filling out the rotation. While none of the Marlins offseason acquisitions were particularly sexy, they provide that Marlins with some depth that the team has not had in recent years. The Marlins are poised to be a team that can surprise many people, but a lot of things have to go right.
Plain and simple, the Marlins need to score runs and at a much higher rate than last season. The Marlins have question marks from the top to the bottom of their rotation, forcing them to lean heavily on an offense that under-performed in the 2016 campaign. Though the Marlins did not make any changes to their every day line-up the acquisition of health could be the difference in 2017. Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Bour and Dee Gordon all missing extended periods of time saw the Marlins line-up shuffle around in 2016, forcing players to adjust to different spots in the order and reserve players to assume everyday roles (much like in 2015).
I know I'm not knocking anybody's socks off with the notion that scoring more runs will lead to more wins but for the Marlins, it goes deeper. The Fish no longer have José Fernàndez to bail them out of a meager one run performance and escape with a win every fifth day; there is no ace in the Marlins rotation to end a losing streak or steal a win. That responsibility now rests with the offense.
The idea that a 27th ranked offense could carry the load for a team is scary for Marlins fans, but there is reason to hold out hope. With the aforementioned Stanton, Bour, and Gordon all in the line-up come Opening Day for the Fish, there is plenty to be excited about. Stanton is the most powerful hitter in baseball, Bour was on pace for 30 home runs and 100-plus RBI and Dee Gordon is just one season removed from winning the batting and stolen base titles, which is more than enough to re-vamp the offense if all three are clicking.
At the beginning of the offseason, the Marlins made it clear that their priority was to bolster their bullpen. While they did not acquire the high profile closers they initially targeted in Chapman and Jensen, the Fish did quietly make their 'pen one of the best in baseball through the acquisitions of Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa. Ziegler and Tazawa add depth to the back of the Marlins bullpen that already had All-Star closer AJ Ramos and set-up men Kyle Barraclaugh and David Phelps who both enjoyed fantastic 2016 campaigns.
The importance of the Marlins bullpen extends beyond closing games out, it will also be vital for the 'pen to shorten games. The Marlins goal was to build a "super bullpen" to take the pressure off of the Marlins mediocre rotation. It takes no expert to figure out that the Marlins starters will not be going very deep into games for the most part, but with the Marlins added bullpen depth, short starts should be theoretically easier to overcome. Should the bullpen perform as well as many expect, it could bail out the rotation and keep the Fish in ballgames.
Finally, somebody who could have as much of an impact as anyone on the Marlins 2017 success is Wei-Yin Chen. Now before you get up in arms, keep in mind the Marlins rotation is filled with middle-to-back of the rotation arms and Chen is the only pitcher who is capable of anchoring this staff. After Chen's 2016 campaign It is really easy to forget that he is one year removed from a two-year stint in Baltimore in which he went 27-14 and owned a 3.44 ERA, impressive considering the heavy hitting competition in the AL East. Chen struggled in his first season in Miami, but also battled injury most of the season. Should Chen stay healthy, the Marlins believe he can return to his Baltimore form, which would be huge for a rotation desperately hoping for a clear cut ace to emerge.
If the Marlins hit on one or all of these keys, 2017 might be a far greater year than any of us expected it to be.