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1998 Florida Marlins were doomed from the start

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Former Sun Sentinel beat writer David O’Brien reflects on covering the defending World Series champs...at least, what was left of them.

Manager Jim Leyland knew from the get-go that he didn’t have enough talent to compete following an offseason fire sale.
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Worth the price of a subscription (if you aren’t subscribing already), The Athletic is featuring an article series this week about “the worst team I ever covered.” Pretty self-explanatory: beat writers with decades of experience in particular sports explain what it’s like on the field and behind the scenes of a non-competitive, dysfunctional season. Unsurprising, the 1998 Florida Marlins earned a mention in the MLB installment.

David O’Brien—now an Atlanta Braves beat writer at The Athletic—was working for the Sun Sentinel at that time. As he recalls, even the coaching staff had no delusions about defending their 1997 World Series championship:

Near the end of 1998 spring training, Florida Marlins manager Jim Leyland sat behind the desk in his office at Space Coast Stadium in Melbourne, Fla., smoking a cigarette and talking shop with a few writers who covered the team. He lowered his gravelly voice and told us he was going to say something that we couldn’t use.

“We,” he said, “are going to get slaughtered.”

The late Wayne Huizenga had ordered his front office to slash payroll as he aimed to sell the franchise. That meant trading away critical starting rotation workhorses Kevin Brown and Al Leiter, plus bullpen cogs Robb Nen and Dennis Cook. None of the players received in those transactions were proven major leaguers.

Leyland described his remaining pitchers as “a great group of guys, the kind you want to take out to dinner—and then release them.”

The high point of the regular season was Opening Day, when 41,126 fans showed up on an overcast afternoon for this awkward banner-raising ceremony and an 11-6 victory:

But the Fish went downhill immediately after that with an 11-game losing streak from April 1-12, during which they allowed an average of 7.27 runs per game. Then there was another 11-game skid in late May/early June.

The Marlins finished at 54-108 and did not have a winning record against any National League team. Twenty years later, they still hold franchise records for worst ERA (5.18), WHIP (1.61) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.42). En route to establishing a new home run record, Mark McGwire absolutely feasted on these scrubs and neophytes (.313/.488/.969, 7 HR in 9 G).

By Wins Above Replacement, Mark Kotsay and Cliff Floyd were the most valuable players. That should tell you everything you need to know. All-Stars Gary Sheffield and Mike Piazza headlined a trade in mid-May, but they combined to appear in just 45 Marlins games, finishing the season on the Dodgers and Mets, respectively.

We head toward the 2019 season with expectations of the Marlins as a last-place team, but the silver lining is that things probably won’t get this bad.