Marlins fans have suffered—there’s no doubt about that. For 16 straight seasons, their franchise has failed to qualify for the playoffs, a drought that spans most of its existence. Beyond the constant losing, lopsided trades, inefficient free agent signings and spats with local government have further amplified the pain and embarrassment.
That being said, Marlins fandom gets mischaracterized.
A common putdown you have surely heard or read before: “They won it all in ‘97 and ‘03, and since then...nothing!” As if the non-championship seasons provided zero satisfaction whatsoever.
But Fish fans know better. Numerous times, they have spent their summers feeling strong conviction that the team could contend, or in other cases, enjoyed as a young roster overachieved and gave big-market rivals a legitimate scare. It’s been thrilling to witness individual superstars putting the city of Miami on their backs and scrappy role players making the most of their opportunities.
We are in the midst of best teams to never win a championship week all across SB Nation. Let’s join in on the fun by reminiscing about what made the 2009 campaign so special.
The biggest storylines for the Marlins heading into 2009 Opening Day (in no particular order):
- Progress being made on a publicly funded stadium. Despite being unrelated to the upcoming season, that was good for fanbase morale. Joe Frisaro of MLB.com—yes, he was on the beat way back then—reported a significant increase in ticket sales.
- NL All-Star and Silver Slugger Hanley Ramírez beginning to earn real money thanks to a franchise-record-setting six-year, $70 million contract extension. His $5.5 million salary (buying out what would’ve been his first year of arbitration eligibility) made him the highest-paid player on the roster. Overall, though, Florida had an Opening Day payroll in the $37 million range, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the lowest total in the league.
- Relying on young rotation options. Veteran Mark Hendrickson departed via free agency the prior offseason, putting the pressure on Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Andrew Miller and former top draft pick Chris Volstad to step up.
The Marlins bolted out of the gate by winning 11 of their first 12 games. Dan Uggla and Jorge Cantú were mashing in the heart of the lineup. Jeremy Hermida was reaching base every day, seemingly “putting it all together” after years of hype. And those starting pitchers showed poise well beyond their years, consistently eating innings.
But most notably, the new speedy, switch-hitting leadoff man provided a spark. Emilio Bonifácio stole three bases in his Florida debut and posted a cool .500 batting average through the opening week. Talk about a diamond in the rough!
Their NL East lead dissipated quickly. Tied with the Mets on the morning of Sunday, May 10, the Marlins went on to lose 11 of the next 13 games overall (most of those at Land Shark Stadium). All of a sudden, they were five-and-a-half back, just as close to the division cellar as they were to first place. Hermida and Bonifácio stopped producing at the plate. Nolasco was getting shelled. Nobody in the bullpen could throw strikes.
Then, Chris Coghlan found his groove.
There had been skepticism about whether his great minor league on-base skills would translate to The Show. Fourteen games into his Marlins career, Coghlan owned a meager .143/.260/.214 slash line. He posted his first three-hit game in a winning effort on May 24. From that point onward, the rookie outfielder raked (.338/.402/.483, 136 wRC+), supplanting Bonifácio in the leadoff spot and emerging as Florida’s second-best offensive weapon behind Hanley.
Throughout June and early July, the Marlins held steady around the .500 mark. Still alive, but barely. The Phillies—reigning World Series champions—had seized control of the division coming out of the All-Star break, sweeping the Fish in a three-game series (including two shutouts).
At 46-47 with the trade deadline fast approaching and a handful of other teams in the mix with them for the lone NL Wild Card spot, what would the Marlins front office do? Buy, sell or stand pat? Fortunately, the players made the decision simple, rebounding from getting swept with a 7-1 hot streak.
Though tempted to improve the major league roster for the stretch run, general manager Michael Hill wouldn’t mortgage the future by moving slugger Mike Stanton or another elite prospect. Hill’s patience paid off—with seconds to spare before the July 31 deadline, he landed Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson at an acceptable asking price.
Johnson was doing fine with the Nats before the trade, but the pennant race elevated his performance even more. There has never been—not before, not since—a higher on-base percentage by a Marlins player during a single season than his .477 mark (min. 100 plate appearances).
However, Johnson’s impact would be limited by the injury bug. He played in only 22 of the final 45 games. The Marlins lost critical ground in the playoff hunt during his absence.
One frantic surge in early September propelled them to 75-65, matching their season’s high water mark of 10 games above .500. Hanley Ramírez was at the center of it, flirting with a 1.000 OPS as the everyday shortstop, a profile rarely seen in MLB history. Justifying that long-term contract and then some. But with zero margin for error over the final weeks, he came back down to Earth (.222/.337/.347, 2 HR after Sept. 10).
Ramírez still held on to win the NL batting title while Coghlan rallied for NL Rookie of the Year honors. The Marlins finished at 87-75; the 92-70 Rockies made the postseason as the Wild Card. Nonetheless, that was good enough for second place in the NL East (only done previously in 1997 and 2003), earning manager Fredi González another year on the job. Perhaps most importantly, a deal was secured to construct the new ballpark on the site of the Orange Bowl, ensuring Major League Baseball would stay in South Florida for generations to come.
The 2005 Marlins deserve an honorable mention in the greatest non-champion discussion. They seemingly had an ideal blend of experience and upside, but for whatever reason were less than the sum of their parts (83-79 record). In terms of run differential, the 2004 club was even better (plus-18). And who knows how history may have changed in 2016 with more sensible midseason additions to augment José Fernández and the most talented outfield in the league?
If you prefer another Marlins team to these ones, make your case in the comments!