Twenty years later, the Marlins franchise is back in a familiar place. Just like in 1999, the 2019 Marlins are in the early stages of stocking up major league talent after deconstructing the old core.
The decision to rebuild was far more contentious the first time around, motivated by ownership’s mandate to save money after living above their means to deliver the 1997 World Series title. On the other hand, the latest all-in iteration of the Fish didn’t have enough pitching for even one postseason berth. Numerous blockbuster trades have since addressed that need...while depleting the lineup.
Plenty of the young Marlins from that 1999 team went on to be champs in 2003. Current players hope to experience the same thing in 2023 (if not sooner!).
Just for fun, let’s compare then and now.
Like with these Miami Marlins, the ’99 squad did most of its roster churn in the previous offseason. However, one move of note during the 1998-99 offseason was that the Marlins traded their primary catcher Gregg Zaun to the Texas Rangers for “future considerations”.
Ring any bells? In February, All-Star backstop J.T. Realmuto was sent to the Philadelphia Phillies for what can be considered our future battery, Sixto Sánchez and Jorge Alfaro, along with a solid third piece, left-hander Will Stewart.
Position by Position
Both 1999 and 2019 clubs have a young catcher serving as the primary backstop. That however may be the only similarity between the two. Future Marlins manager Mike Redmond would serve a steady bat/sound defender in the 1999 season.
In 2019, his counterpart carries a lot more potential but also more risk. Alfaro, still a developing piece, has a lot of power potential at the plate, but also strikes out a ton (36.6% K rate in 2018). He may have the strongest arm behind the plate, but also allowed the most past balls in 2018 (10).
First is a case of opposites for the two clubs. The ’99 Marlins had a rookie/sophomore combo stationed there for the majority of their games. 2 eventual champs, Kevin Millar—later made famous with the curse-breaking ‘04 Red Sox—and Derrek Lee (who would remain for the ‘03 Marlins parade) combined for solid numbers in 1999.
The 2019 Marlins on the other hand are likely to have two seasoned veterans (23 seasons combined) handling first. In a classic lefty/righty platoon, Martin Prado and Neil Walker are expected to split most games at first. All in all, the combined vet-duo is projected to have similar productivity to Millar/Lee back in ’99.
At second we have more of a comparison case. Both ’99 and ’19 Marlins have second baseman out of the Dominican Republican in which they can rely on bring some consistency to the lineup. The difference is where they hit in the lineup. Luis Castillo was the leadoff hitter for the ’99 Marlins due to his on base ability and speed (50 steals in ’99).
Starlin Castro, having more power than Castillo did, will likely fill the No. 3 hole for the still very inexperienced 2019 Marlins lineup. Castillo would go on to be part of the 2003 championship Marlins and one of the best Marlins of all time. Castro unfortunately will likely be but a side note in Marlins history.
We continue with another set of countrymen sharing the same position 20 years apart in the form of 2 Venezuelan shortstops primarily known for their defense: Alex Gonzalez and Miguel Rojas. While Rojas is amongst the few veterans in the 2019 squad, Gonzalez was just a rookie – and the lone Marlins All-Star – in 1999. And though the Marlins have said that they want to give JT Riddle more playing time at short, Rojas continues to be the better option at the plate (plus it makes for an easier comparison). Gonzalez also would go on to win it all with the Fish in ’03, and even had possibly the second-most memorable Marlins WS at-bat of all time.
While these two aren’t from the same country, they may actually be the most comparable of the 1999/2019 Marlins cases. In 1999, Mike Lowell wasn’t yet the steady run-producer we all remember him to be. Lowell was just going into his first full big league season and shared a lot of playing time at 3rd with Kevin Orie.
Going into his second full big league season, Brian Anderson has the same solid compact swing and knack for driving in runs that Mike Lowell had. Lowell went on to be a face of the Marlins for years to come and completes the foursome of ’99 infielders that would win the 2003 World Series. As for Anderson, he already feels like one of the faces for this new generation of Fish, and is probably the likeliest of the 2019 infielders to be part of the next Marlins title.
Right now Curtis Granderson projects as 2019 Marlins Opening Day left fielder, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll end up the 2019 Marlins primary left fielder. In 1999, the opening day left fielder for the Marlins was Preston Wilson, though he was actually the primary center fielder that year. It was Bruce Aven that ended up getting the most time at left field in 1999. So again, for the comparison sake, my guess is Austin Dean will end up with the most playing time for the Fish in left field in 2019. Both Aven and Dean are right-handed-hitting outfielders out of Texas with good on base skills and okay power ability. Aven had the best of season of his five-year career in 1999. He is now the head coach for the American Heritage High School baseball team out of Plantation, FL.
The 2019 season will be a key year for Dean to prove his worth to Miami. He ultimately projects as a fourth outfielder type for the Marlins.
As foreshadowed in LF, while he started the season in Left, Preston Wilson played most of his games at center for the 1999 Marlins. This makes for really good comparison with 2019 centerfielder, Lewis Brinson. Both first-round picks got traded for marquee players in the previous season, Wilson for Mike Piazza in 1998, and Brinson for Christian Yelich in 2018. Besides the coincidental facts, they share a skill set: tall right handed hitters who can play all three outfield spots with a great combination of power and speed.
While Brinson did have a rough 2018, Preston Wilson may be a fair career projection for him.
As the ninth overall pick in the 1996 draft Mark Kotsay was supposed to be the future of the Marlins. Once the Marlins traded Gary Sheffield in 1998, RF was open for Kotsay. He never lived up to the hype but did serve as a solid defender from the outfield consistently hitting double digit assists.
Now that Peter O’Brien has been optioned to AAA, the 2019 RF starting job will likely go to Garrett Cooper. Having spent most of his time in the minor league affiliates of three different clubs, Cooper does not have lofty expectations that Kotsay had. Cooper also has only played three big leagues games at RF. The two don’t quite profile similarly, but may ultimately have similar seasons at the plate 20 years apart, while also spending time at both RF and 1B.
This is where I feel the 1999 and 2019 Marlins differ the most. While the ’99 Marlins prioritized their young position players, the ’19 Marlins have prioritized their young pitchers as the key to their future success.
The two pitching staffs do have their similarities, though. For example in the rotation, Dan Straily and Jose Ureña profile as Alex Fernandez and Livan Hernandez, the anchor carry-overs from the previous regime. The rotation is capped off by a trio of young pitchers: Ryan Dempster, Brian Meadows, and A.J. Burnett in 1999 and any combination of Pablo López, Sandy Alcántara, Caleb Smith, and Trevor Richards in 2019.
Let’s do several more fun comparisons:
- Salary—$20,000,000 for Wei-Yin Chen in 2019 vs. $21,085,000 for the full 1999 Marlins roster (Inflation is real!!!)
- Minor league affiliates—2019 New Orleans Baby Cakes/1999 Calgary Cannons (Triple-A), 2019 Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp/1999 Portland Sea Dogs (Double-A), 2019 Jupiter Hammerheads/1999 Brevard County Manatees (High-A)
- Attendance—projected 1,050,007 in 2019 (via Fish Stripes’ own Daniel Martinez) vs. 1,369,421 in 1999
- Television broadcast—both the 1999 and 2019 telecasts include Tommy Hutton!
Of course, you could compare any two teams at any point in history and find similarities and differences. But hopefully, this particular case serves as an interesting look at how the foundation of an eventual World Series contender comes together.
The 1999 Marlins eventually led to the glory of 2003. Now it’s up to the 2019 Marlins to continue making the right moves in order to ensure that this current rebuild’s goal also becomes reality.