Good riddance to the 2018-2019 Marlins, who gave regular roles to declining veterans due to a lack of competent alternatives and would rather wait a year too long to promote impact prospects than do it a day too soon. Can’t get attached to overachievers! They were destined to be flipped for more “assets” when the opportunity presented itself.
These past two seasons have been painfully predictable; the 2020 season won’t be.
Miami is still technically in its rebuilding/non-contending phase, but the organization finally has impressive depth, upside and versatility. None of us really know who the most valuable players are, which positions they’ll be used at or when homegrown talent could be flipped for an established star.
Marlins fans can already infer what the reasonable, 50th-percentile projection looks like for this year: fewer than 100 losses, but still a distant fifth place in the NL East. Booooooooooring.
From both the team and individual perspective, on and off the field, here are 12 bold Marlins predictions for 2020. All of them are rooted in some kind of tangible evidence or historical precedent. They are ordered from most likely to least likely.
There is no universe where all 12 come true—that isn’t what you came here for. The MLB batting average last season was .252, so I’d be stoked to go 3-for-12 (.250).
Marlins get featured on Sunday Night Baseball
The last time that the Marlins played during ESPN’s exclusive end-of-the-week broadcast window? April 9, 2017 vs. the Mets. Since then, the network has used that international platform more than 70 times, preferring matchups comprised of the other 29 MLB teams.
I don’t have any particularly bold predictions in regards to the Marlins’ overall record, but by the second half of the 2020 season, expect them to arrange the right combination of exciting young talent on their active roster to emerge from total irrelevancy. August and September are stacked with division rivalries—including both home and road games—that ought to be candidates to be flexed into prime time.
Jorge Guzman leads team in saves
Credit Jorge Guzman for a very productive 2019 campaign with Double-A Jacksonville. Competing at that level for the first time, the thick right-hander allowed only 54 total runs in 138 2⁄3 innings, the heaviest workload for any Marlins pitcher who enters the new year with prospect eligibility.
There were several bright red flags, however. Guzman was helped by an unsustainable .241 batting average on balls in play. Also, his effectiveness deteriorated multiple times through an opposing lineup. In the first, second and third innings of his games, Guzman posted a combined 1.82 ERA and 0.89 WHIP, allowing three home runs to 274 batters faced; from the fourth inning onward, that spiked to a 5.43 ERA and 1.56 WHIP with 10 dingers to 288 batters faced.
Strange but true: Drew Steckenrider leads all current Marlins pitchers with six career MLB saves. And he’s coming off a significant elbow injury. Even if the club acquires a more experienced option between now and Opening Day, it would be a hired gun who cannot be counted on remaining in Miami throughout the whole season.
Convert Guzman into a high-leverage weapon and his upper-90s fastball could play up into the triple digits in brief spurts. Just something to watch out for once the “Super Two” deadline passes in June.
Lewin Díaz starts more games at first base than any other player
Most of you (myself included) didn’t even know who Lewin Díaz was at this time a year ago. Once an expensive international amateur signing by the Minnesota Twins, he homered only 36 total times through his first five professional seasons. Despite being left unprotected by the Twins last winter, the rest of the league ignored him in the Rule 5 Draft coming off an injury-shortened slog in the High-A Florida State League.
But Díaz bounced back big time, improving his conditioning while tapping into more of his raw power. He mashed 30 home runs during the 2019 calendar year (if you include the Dominican Winter League where he won Rookie of the Year honors). All the while, he has demonstrated solid bat-to-ball skills and smooth defense.
Although already on the 40-man roster, Díaz is currently behind fellow first basemen Jesús Aguilar and Garrett Cooper on the depth chart. My hunch is that some combination of injuries, trades, Díaz’s Triple-A production and other miscellaneous factors lead to him getting steady major league reps from midsummer through the end of the season.
Worst interleague performance in franchise history
The Marlins will miss the 2020 postseason—that’s an obvious prediction, not a bold one—because they’re in a stacked NL East division. There are 76 combined games scheduled against the Braves, Mets, Nationals and Phillies, all of whom have superior returning talent and more urgency to contend right now.
But the 20-game interleague slate could be especially treacherous this year. It includes road trips out west to battle the Astros and Angels. Since 2018, the Marlins are 19-36 overall when playing outside the EST time zone. Plus, there is the annual Sunshine Series against the mighty Rays.
The lowest winning percentage that the Fish have ever had against American League opponents was .278 (5-13 record) during the 2012 season. On paper, it should help the 2020 squad to have veterans like Aguilar and Corey Dickerson as designated hitter possibilities, but historically, both have actually performed below their usual offensive standards when DH-ing.
All things considered, I could see Miami going 5-15 (or worse) in interleague matchups.
Pablo López leads team in Wins Above Replacement
That’s right, leads the team in Wins Above Replacement, more valuable production than any other Marlins pitcher or position player.
In 2019, which was widely considered a “disappointing” season for Pablo López, he was worth 1.7 fWAR on the mound and at the plate. That tied Jon Berti for the fourth-highest value among all Fish.
Let’s first make the assumption that López avoids shoulder issues in 2020 (those shortened each of his past two seasons). What can he do to be more effective? One suggestion is starting off more counts with his plus changeup. The Venezuelan’s first-pitch strike rate dipped down to 55.7% in 2019—way below the MLB average—and that contributed to the increase in hard contact allowed. His changeup frequently misses bats and induces grounders, so it’s unclear why he seldom used it in 0-0 situations to get ahead.
López is a cerebral player who I trust to adjust and make a strong case for being ace of the Marlins rotation.
Nick Neidert voted NL Rookie of the Year finalist
The wildly optimistic career projection for Nick Neidert is Kyle Hendricks of the Cubs. His realistic best-case scenario is more like Jeremy Hellickson. In both cases, you have right-handers who arrived to the majors with mature approaches and excellent changeups, which set them up for immediate success (Hellickson won AL ROY in 2011).
Rookie of the Year contention is largely about timing. Neidert is already knocking on the door for a rotation spot after dominating his Arizona Fall League competition, but odds are he begins the season as a Wichita Wind Surge rather than a Marlin. However, he deserves to be first in line to receive a call-up in case of injury.
This prediction doesn’t mean that I prefer Neidert long term to the rest of what figures to be an uber-talented rookie class for the Fish. Simply that he’s poised for a very impactful 2020.
Isan Díaz signs long-term contract extension
If the Marlins intend to be a competitive team for most of this new decade, they must get cost certainty for several key players ASAP. Identify which homegrown guys you trust and extend them prior to the arbitration eligibility at below-market rates.
Fish Stripes has long advocated for paying Brian Anderson (#PayBA), but that’s not so bold considering his multiple seasons of good MLB production.
Throughout his professional career, Isan Díaz has shown the selectivity to draw walks consistently, or at the very least, work deep counts. Despite poor performance in his first major league stint (.173/.259/.307, 53 wRC+ in 201 PA), he possesses plus power—particularly to the pull side—that will show itself more often in 2020.
If Díaz realizes his full potential, then great, you have a steady second baseman of Dan Uggla/Dee Gordon caliber. On the other hand, being defensively limited to that position in an organization with several intriguing middle infield prospects in the pipeline, there is a scenario where he becomes serviceable and gets squeezed out of the picture by high-ceiling internal replacements. You know how “creative” this front office can be.
Marlins, Ocean Bank agree to long-term ballpark naming rights deal
Ocean Bank has some history in the naming rights business, previously putting themselves on the Florida International University football field. Currently, they have the rights to FIU’s Convocation Center, the multi-purpose basketball/volleyball arena.
The largest independent state-chartered commercial bank in Florida has been a corporate partner of the Marlins since 2018. Conveniently, their brand’s name lends itself to clever puns when combined with the team’s name. That’s important from the Marlins’ perspective as they try to walk the line between establishing this new revenue stream without blatantly “selling out.”
Marlins lead the majors in stolen bases
A point of emphasis for the Marlins last spring training was manufacturing runs. They (correctly) anticipated that their major league contributors wouldn’t have much over-the-fence power, so offensive production had to come from elsewhere.
And then...nothing. The Marlins were reluctant to promote speedsters from Triple-A and took a conservative approach with their existing personnel. The club stole only 55 bases (t-24th in MLB) at a lousy 64.7% success rate. Even in a low-stakes rebuilding year, Don Mattingly nearly lost his job.
It’s easy to bet on an increase, thanks to the presences of Jon Berti and Magneuris Sierra, an anticipated call-up of Monte Harrison and the newly acquired Jonathan Villar, who swiped 40 bags for the Orioles in 2019. Although new outfield dimensions at Marlins Park will incentivize uppercut swings, I think the effects that will have on playing style are being overstated.
The prediction here is for a team total in the 130-135 stolen base range.
Jorge Alfaro starts MLB All-Star Game
Is it even possible for any individual on a crappy Marlins team to generate enough international hype to be elected as an National League All-Star starter? Even J.T. Realmuto couldn’t come close to pulling that off in 2018 (despite a rock-solid case).
Lots of events need to conspire for Jorge Alfaro to get this distinction. Above all else, it hinges on new bench coach/offensive coordinator James Rowson unlocking a more consistent hitting approach from him. Getting Alfaro 15-plus home runs by mid-June will be critical. Next, we are counting on a weak field of NL catchers—the departure of Yasmani Grandal to the junior circuit, the declines of Yadier Molina and Buster Posey, etc. Maybe Realmuto’s massive workload behind the plate in recent years finally wears him down?
Narrative always matters, too. Let’s say the Marlins capitalize on a division rival’s dysfunction and spend the first half of the season outside the NL East cellar. Gotta reward somebody for that!
Marlins throw first combined no-hitter in franchise history
Leiter. Brown. Burnett. Sánchez. Alvarez. Vólquez. Longtime Marlins fans know these to be the names of pitchers who’ve pitched no-hitters for this franchise.
But in 2020, could we get Alcantara/Brigham/Stanek/Guzman? Or Smith/[Yimi] García/[Jarlin] García/Steckenrider/Conley? How about [Sixto] Sánchez/Hernandez/Brice? The possibilities are endless, though none of them really roll off the tongue.
Mattingly will be managing with an expanded active roster this season (13 position players instead of 12) and a directive to keep his young starters’ workload within reason. That will lend itself to more early substitutions, regardless of what’s at stake.
Expect to witness some special, albeit unconventional, pitching performances.
Jonathan Villar hits for the cycle
Villar hit for the cycle last year with the Orioles, didn’t he?!
Who better to end the cycle drought that has spanned the Marlins’ entire existence?
Villar played all 162 games for the O’s in 2019, and I’m counting on him enjoying a healthy walk year in Miami prior to entering free agency, giving him plenty of opportunities to repeat the feat.
Assuming he comes close to another four-win season, the team could wind up extending a qualifying offer—entitling them to draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere—rather than shopping him in-season. Benefit from having a dynamic player in his prime without risking an inefficient, long-term commitment.
Below are several predictions submitted by the Twitter audience that I found to be sufficiently bold but didn’t wholeheartedly believe in:
Ureña finishes the season with the most Wins. That’s bold— Marlins UK ⚾️ (@MiamiMarlins_UK) December 30, 2019
If I had to say marlins fire Mattingly— Sportsman (@Gametim3_) December 30, 2019
Marlins sell out one game.— Zack Raab (@ZackRaab) December 30, 2019
80 win season. New K record for Sandy.— DaxTheMarlin (@DaxBahama) December 30, 2019
Two All-Stars. Brian Anderson, Jorge Alfaro and Garrett Cooper with 30+ HRs.